Peace and the Thorn

“Mellow out,” they say. If I only could.

Adolescent patient quoted by Dr Michael Piechowski
Three times, the Apostle, says he cried,
yet three times denied:
within his side the unnamed thorn remained.
To fester? To infect? No, to be the site of grace,

for only this reply came: My grace
is sufficient; in your weakness will my power be complete.
And when He said weakness He meant
all the foibles and flaws you could name,
the whole litany of human frailty -
all the deal that He assumed
when He was flesh and frail like us.

And so we hope,
and like naked ones in the cold
crave to be clothed.
I for one shiver with shame
when laid bare by how stabbing thoughts
and fears betray me, how I wince
within, without, at every twinge that divides us,
every failed aim at peace.

Though I long
for numbness, or the certainty of some, I turn
in naked longing and set
the beating of an unquiet mind
to the slow, steady peace at the heart of Christ,
to the quiet words of the Word Made Flesh:
All shall be well. All this shall be well.
You too shall be well.

Lost Things

In a house where
daily I lose, misplace or break
what really, in eternity's view,
means little, yet
has power to make or break my day,

I understand
the urge to ask Saint Anthony where
my keys are, or my glasses, or
any other easily hidden thing.
God in heaven is surely
too busy with the business of souls
and perhaps too quick to point out that
my soul might be freer without
these Lost Things dragging it down.
Saint Anthony, I expect,
might take a kinder view,
being dead, and having this
in his official saintly purview.

And yet at times
when I might ask a saint and not a God, I recall
the stirring way He painted the heart
of the widow after her mite,
and the shepherd's flight,
and how far He Himself came
for every small, disposable
needless thing on two legs that roamed
foolishly, willfully, where it did not belong,
and I fancy
that God in heaven might
have eyes for lost things as small
and needless as mine.

Christmas Day: Let all the earth rejoice

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.

Isaiah 55:12-13

Joy does not come readily to me. I am more comfortable with the solemnity of Lent and Advent than with the rejoicing of Easter and Christmas. I need these seasons to remind me that rejoicing should be part of my story – a significant part – yet I find seasons of waiting and longing easier to digest.

Yet the journey of Advent teaches me that, instead of accepting that this is as good as it gets, I should be longing with creation for all things to be made new. It also teaches me to see in Jesus the object of all our longing coming to make His home among us. And while I do not see Jesus face to face I can see Him in every face transfigured by His presence, and I can catch in everything that is exquisitely joy-inspiring the kind of beauty that He will bring with every footstep when He returns.

If I find it hard to rejoice, Jesus has space for me in His grace. Yet He also teaches me that I should rejoice nonetheless, if nothing else as a declaration that all things are being made new and that the old order of death is slowly dying with Life returning in its stead.

In a year of death, longing and waiting, we need this kind of deep, come-what-may rejoicing. We need it whatever lies ahead, because we need to train our hearts for the Joy that will one day trump everything else that has been.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Christmas Eve

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:7, 9

The book of Jonah finishes with a question: if Jonah is willing to die in anger over the death of a tree he did nothing to nurture, then how much more should God be willing to do for the many He has made who do not know how to save themselves? Jonah is ready to die because of his anger; God is ready to die to end the enmity between us and Him.

We are born into enmity. Babies inherit the conflicts of their families, the age-old divisions between nations. Even those born into relatively peaceful relationships are nonetheless born into a world that is at war with itself. Jonah’s storm may have been orchestrated by God to get his attention but the whole fabric of our world today, glorious though it is, reminds us that even our weather does not function as it should; something is deeply amiss in how all things relate to each other. And in Jonah’s case that stretches to his complete failure to love his neighbour, even his failure to love God as he should.

But tonight we remember that another baby was born, into our enmity, into this rage of being flesh, yet came to end that enmity. A child came not to inherit all these griefs or participate in them but to lead us out of them, to put to rights the world itself and all relationships within it. We do not see all of this as reality yet; we wait in longing for it to be made complete. Yet on Christmas Day the hope is inaugurated; the little child leads us on to the day when we shall see Him as King, shall beat our swords into ploughshares and our flesh will no longer rage against us or God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 25

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:10-11

Jonah concludes in an oddly unresolved manner. For a story that could have finished at several different moments, it finishes here: Jonah still angry, his tree not restored, and only a question to conclude the dialogue between Jonah and God. But what it reveals is the intimate concern that God has for His creation. We see the apparent chaos of that creation – storms at sea, wild sea creatures, raging heat, worms that eat and destroy. Yet we also see the Creator deeply involved in His creation, and thinking of it, like a father for a child. Jonah’s petty rage over the tree dying is nothing compared to God’s care for the Ninevites who “cannot tell their right hand from their left”, a description that reminds me of Jesus’ concern for the crowds who were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Jonah in the end cares primarily for his own little kingdom; God cares for all His creation.

Perhaps that explains the animals. For me, the oddest part of the whole book of Jonah has always been the final line – “and also many animals”. Why do the animals need to be mentioned? Well, when we view sin as only harming humanity, the animals seem out of place, but if we remember that all creation suffers because of sin then the animals belong here. They too long for creation to be restored. And God is their creator as well as ours. They were not made in His image but they were made for His glory and He called them good. So of course their creator does not want to destroy them in a senseless shower or smoke. God is concerned for all He has made.

As Christmas draws ever closer, let’s remember this fact: Jesus’ Advent does not just save humanity; it restores creation. This is why the famous carol “Joy to the World” contains the words, “And heaven and nature sing” – because all creation declares Jesus’ Advent to be good. Jesus is making creation good again.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 19

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.

Jonah 4:5

Jonah, like me, has no answer to God for his anger. He can give the reason for it, but when asked if it is right he can say nothing. Instead he sits sullen and waits to see if he gets his own way. Instead of talking with God or having compassion on the people he was sent to save, Jonah thinks of himself, making a shelter from the sun, and seats himself with a good view of the impending fireworks from heaven.

Why? Does he think that God might change His mind and decide to destroy Nineveh after all? And if He did, what would that mean for Jonah, already saved himself by the very grace he now wants to deny Nineveh?

Jesus’ first sermon has something to say to the Jonah in us all:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

This doesn’t mean that we can never call anyone else to account for their actions, but it must be viewed through the prism of the grace we have all received. Jesus goes on to say that we cannot remove a speck of dust from another’s eye while having a log in our own eye. The image of someone trying to lean over to remove a speck from someone’s eye while whacking them with the log in their own eye has always made me chuckle. The other implication is that the eye, the means by which we see reality, is clouded by our own sin if we do not attend to it first.

Jonah in his anger cannot see anything else, least of all his own sin or the goodness of the grace that has saved both him and the Ninevites. Anger places everything other than its object in a massive blind spot, and as any driver or cyclist knows, blind spots cause crashes. I too need to be slower to spot others’ failings and quicker to check my own blind spots. And to do that, this Advent I want to slow down and listen to God asking me: Matthew, are you right to be angry?

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 16

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry.

Jonah 4:1

It’s all too easy to judge Jonah. Easy also to declare that, because all anger is at its heart a desire to be in the place of God, it should simply respond to a biblical rebuke and go away. Seeing anger this way, however true it might be, achieves remarkably little. Once when I was angry at a colleague, another colleague described the trigger to my anger as “a test to see if I respond in a godly or ungodly way”. Quite apart from the pastoral insensitivity, it’s essential a truism. All conflict tests how we respond. And it’s not only anger that stems from our desire to be in the place of God; all human sin begins there too, as Genesis 3 will tell you.

No, it’s one thing to know the theological root of anger; it’s another to know just how anger works in the human mind and how to speak into it so that it defuses. I doubt anyone stopped being angry simply because they were told too, any more than anyone relaxed because they were told to take a chill pill. We love dispensing useless truisms. I think the book of Jonah invites us to go a little deeper than that.

You see, Jonah has been angry all along. This is the first time he’s described as such, but the very next verse will tell us that Jonah ran away because he was expecting this of God. So Jonah has no doubt already been playing over in his mind the way this will turn out when God acts just like he predicted. And the thing about predicting things that will make you angry is that you’re no less angry simply because you anticipated it; quite the opposite. In fact, you’ll be more angry because you’ve already experienced the anger the first time you anticipated it and now you’re doubly angry that it happened even after you anticipated it. Anger fuels itself on our own thoughts, continually bringing them back to the surface wherever it can and consuming us in the process.

And why is Jonah angry? At its simplest, because he hates his enemy, and he knows that if God forgives Nineveh then he will have to do the same, and it’s easier to burn in self-righteous indignation than to humble yourself and be wrong.

But this, as we’ve seen again and again so far, is where the Gospel begins. You see, Jonah’s anger is, in a way, quite right. Nineveh doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But Jonah is wrong to be angry because he is not the one whom this should anger. Jonah doesn’t deserve forgiveness any more than Nineveh. It’s God who has the right to be angry, and God, Advent reminds us, is not angry with us any more. Because all of that rage against our fragile flesh is going into the life of a tiny baby – still, as far as Jonah is concerned, centuries away from being born, yet His birth, death and defeat of death are the reasons, those centuries earlier, that God could forgive Nineveh, could forgive Jonah, could forgive me and you.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 12

John Martin, “Repentance of Nineveh”, c.1840

The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:5

Advent may not seem to be a time for sackcloth. For those who know the church calendar, it might seem more logical to think about repentance in Lent. But historically Advent and Lent used to be much more like each other than they are now, and it makes some sense that they would be. One of the images most associated with Advent is John the Baptist in the wilderness calling people to “prepare the way of the Lord”, and for John this meant repentance. We might think something similar as we imagine ourselves preparing to meet the baby King: approaching with a sense of unworthiness and contrition.

After the year we have had, we mostly want to skip the sackcloth and get straight to the celebration. Unlike Nineveh, we know the end to the story: God shows mercy and forgives. Why then do we need to go through with the sackcloth? Why not just rejoice? The truth is that rejoicing without repentance is entitlement. We focus on what we “deserve”, as though the world – even God – “owes us”. Certainly there’s a place for recognising that we need rest and need celebration, and God in His goodness gives us both. But He doesn’t owe us. Thinking that misses the point. Christians shouldn’t be surprised by grief and suffering in the world; we should know to expect it. What should surprise us is grace – not as though we keep forgetting the end of the story, but because it never fails to startle us with just how extraordinary it is.

Unless we know what it is to sit in sackcloth over sin, I don’t think we’ll grasp just how astonishing it is for God to lift us out of our ashes and invite us to meet His baby Son.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 11

Jan Luyken, “Jona voorspelt de ondergang van Nineve” (1712)

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah 3:1-4

One of the greatest challenges of seasons like Advent and Lent is the way we must consciously withhold the pleasure and consolation of what follows: the joyful feasts of Christmas and Easter. Not that we forget how the story ends, that the centuries of waiting end with the Messiah’s birth, or that the three days in the tomb end with resurrection, rather we experience the spiritual fruit of these seasons of waiting and longing. These seasons also point us to present, ongoing realities in our lives that need to be brought into line with the bigger salvation story: yes, the Messiah has come into the world, but we also need to be reminded that He will come again; yes, Jesus has conquered death, but we also need to be reminded that our bodies will die before they are raised to new life. These realities are not made simple and easy to digest just because we know the end of the story; instead, we often understand them more by following the drama of the story through to its conclusion. Sitting with our own mortality teaches us to cherish the resurrection more. Sitting with Israel in its period of waiting teaches us to celebrate Christmas more fully and to learn to turn our longing eyes to Jesus’ return and not to the false hopes of this age.

So it is with stories like Jonah. The narrator moves so quickly over extended periods of waiting that we might miss them: Jonah waits three days and nights in the fish; Jonah travels through Nineveh for three days prophesying their doom; Nineveh is given 40 days warning of their impending destruction. And notice that Jonah does not even offer hope for Nineveh, simply warning: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Yet the hope is implicit in the warning. Only a cruel God would give forty days for Nineveh to contemplate their doom without giving them any chance to repent. Besides, as we will see in the coming chapter, Jonah has always expected that the story will end not with destruction but with restoration, because that is the nature of God, to have mercy.

Yet there’s value in sitting with judgment for a little longer than is comfortable. If we don’t accept that we deserve the same fate as them, we won’t rejoice at the news that we’ve been spared. Moreover, we’ll be like Jonah, believing that we ourselves deserve mercy but others don’t; and what then? No hope of us being agents of God’s mercy in a world crying out for it.

One of the traditions that the church has had over the ages in the season of Advent is to contemplate the “last things” that face all people. It’s counter-cultural in an age – in a year – that wants Christmas to come early. But it’s a reminder that we need: we are mortal; we are not in control; we don’t “deserve better”; but God has given us what we don’t deserve because that’s the kind of God He is – righteous and just, but abundant in ridiculous grace.

Let me invite you to sit with the Ninevites for a moment today and remember the place you should be in, but for God stepping into our mess.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 8

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’

Jonah 2:1-4

Jonah’s prayer inside the fish is one of the most overlooked parts of this book. Often it seems like nothing more than a poetic interlude and we want to keep moving to the next part of the story, to the drama of Jonah being vomited onto dry ground. But I am a poet so I love poetic interludes, and I’m also curious about much that features in this prayer. First, it’s essentially a collage of other biblical prayers, full of references to the Psalms which Jonah draws on to have words for this otherwise unprecedented experience. But it’s also curious in the story it tells: a story in which God seemingly answers Jonah’s distress by sending him into the deep and making a giant fish swallow him. Neither of these circumstances are how I would typically want God to deliver me from a storm at sea. Yet God is delivering him from more than the storm; He’s delivering him from all the things that have made him run from God. To do this work in Jonah, God isn’t simply going to spare Jonah any trial. Instead, He is going to send Jonah right into darkness in order to teach him about God’s light.

I’ve often been frustrated by how Southern hemisphere summers detract from Advent’s symbolism of longing for the coming of the light. When it’s daylight until 9pm, I rarely find myself longing for light. Here again I need Jonah to remind me: sometimes the best way to encounter God’s light is to open up the dark spaces inside ourselves. Jonah’s dark spaces were his tribalist hatred of neighbour and his transactional view of God’s mercy. Mine are a sense of resentment when God’s mercy does not accord me the comforts and affirmation I think that I need. In an Australian summer, on the brink of Christmas, it can be all too easy to ignore those dark emotions until they get the better of us. Yet God often calls us to enter them with Him – and this is expressed in no better way than the life of Jesus: entering the darkness of the womb for nine months, the darkness of imperial infanticide at the time of his birth, the darkness of poverty and oppression, the darkness of persecution, the darkness of the cross, the darkness of the tomb.

Jesus told those asking for a sign that He would only give them the sign of Jonah. Like Jonah, He entered deepest darkness for three days. Yet He was not overwhelmed by the darkness; even there He is strong, stronger than death. And so we, like Jonah, can encounter Him in the dark. Like Jonah, we might even be taken into the dark to save us from our own hidden darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised if that happens; it was the very thing that Jesus came to earth to do.