Science of story-telling

How to make friends and influence people? According to this article,story-telling has the power to “plant ideas in others’ minds”. That may be an exaggeration, but the science here is graphically presented and persuasive. It’s much better to tell a story than create dot-points!

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Miriam’s Garden

It was still dark when I came to the garden early that Sunday morning. I had not slept for grief; I had cried all the tears I had, but knew I had more to cry. The one whom I loved was dead. I had said good-bye, but I knew there were more goodbyes to say. I longed with every fibre of my body to see him again, or at least to see his body again.

The dark was so deep I could not see. I could only feel my way along the edge of the cliff outside Jerusalem into which the tombs are hewn. I stumbled into the garden.

The very first light of day was pale and wan; a grey that showed the outline of the steep wall of tombs and reflected the devastation and desolation I felt.

I was alone. My world had ceased to exist, and somehow I was still alive, but with no purpose. There was no reality – except my overwhelming grief.

The light changed from grey to a gentle pink. I don’t know whether it was the few tears still left in my eyes, or whether it was really this new light, but I thought I saw a ray of pink light strike a dewdrop hanging on a leaf of one of the garden plants. The light split and refracted and struck dewdrops all over the garden. For a second, the whole garden seemed to bloom with weak incandescence.

It was enough light to see that the front of the tomb was open.

I ran.

I ran away.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I ran and ran, and my legs carried me to Peter’s house. “The tomb’s open! It’s empty!” I didn’t really know what I was saying.

Peter got John. They raced each other to the tomb and looked into the indefinite darkness. They too saw that the tomb was empty. But they didn’t understand what they saw. I could see the bewilderment on their faces as I waited outside.

They went home.

I was a little calmer. I went inside. The dawn light was just strong enough for me to see that the grave clothes were lying there, just as they would have been if he had been there. The head cloth was lying to one side.

And again I don’t know if it was just the few dry tears in my eyes, or if I really saw the two beings at each end of the grave stone.

“Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have lain him.”

I stumbled outside, and there was another human presence out in the garden. I thought he must be the gardener. He too spoke.

“Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have lain him. Sir, if you know where he is, please tell me.” For I wanted to see him.

Then his voice, so familiar, the voice I can only cherish.

“Miriam.”

“My Teacher. My Lord.”

Then the tears rushed again. Now not tears of grief, but tears of relief, tears of joy. The morning sun streamed into the garden and all was light.

I ran again and told Peter and John that he was risen. That the empty tomb did not mean his absence, but it meant he was present in a way that would keep him near me for the rest of my life and throughout eternity.

I had seen enough hints and glimpses into eternity in that garden to know it was true. He is risen from the dead.

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My translation of John 20:1-18 is here.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

I am always shocked at the depth of pain of Mary even in the face of Jesus’ resurrection. Reflect on how pain may be an unavoidable part of love.

When have you felt at the beginning of something new?

Write the story of someone who discovers the secret of eternal life.

I am always shocked at the depth of pain of Mary even in the face of Jesus’ resurrection. Reflect on how pain may be an unavoidable part of love.

When have you felt at the beginning of something new?

Write the story of someone who discovers the secret of eternal life.

The Exquisite Jewelled Crucifix

Jerry’s regular trips to the customs office to identify impounded objects were routine and unexciting. As the senior curator in the National Art Gallery, the customs office was to be endured. Jerry, a naturally outgoing person, was on good terms with the customs officers. His alert eyes one day perched on a tiny and exquisite crucifix. At about 6 centimetres tall and three across, the cream colour of its small ivory body drew Jerry’s attention. It was encrusted with gems, and it was the kind of object at which you wanted to look, and look again, and go on gazing.

Jerry learned that the ivory crucifix had arrived with a drug haul from the Middle East, but the customs officials knew nothing else about it. Jerry hurried back to the National Art gallery, rushed to his reference book, and quickly found a photo of the crucifix over an entry headed “The Crusaders’ Cross”. Believed to have been crafted in the 11th Century, or earlier, the Crusaders’ Cross had circulated in the Holy Land and Europe at the time of the Crusades.

It was cursed, said the article, but Jerry quickly discerned that its curse was due to its beauty and value. Whoever owned it was cursed because someone else desperately wanted to get their hands on it too.

And Jerry, realising that the glossy picture in the art reference book only distantly hinted at the compelling beauty of the reality, was determined that he should get the Crusaders’ Cross for himself.

He obtained his Director’s authorisation to find out more. Jerry wrote the usual official letters to the Customs Department and to the Federal Police. He telephoned his contact at Customs and discovered that a Sotheby’s agent had also sighted the crucifix and had informally valued the crucifix at five million dollars.

Jerry knew that if Sotheby’s acquired it, they would, with their clever marketing, auction the piece for seven or eight million. Jerry wanted it first.

He squeezed a five million dollar purchase budget out of the Board, and their commitment to the Crusaders’ Cross as the Gallery’s major acquisition for the year.

Jerry’s abundant energies focused exclusively on this task. A round of enquiries, research, a phone interview with an American philanthropist who owned the crucifix before World War 2 – all failed to steer Jerry any closer.

Two days later, a rather curt phone call came from the Customs Office.

“Just unofficially, we’re letting you know that the cross you were interested in has disappeared. So,” the unidentified voice continued tightly, “has one of our Officers.” The phone was put down.

Jerry was frantic. He called the Director’s secretary. “Book me a flight to Tel Aviv. The first out of the city airport, if you can.” In his desperation, he was playing a dangerous game. The drug gang hailed from Tel Aviv. His only clue.

Surprisingly quickly in a jeweller’s shop in a suburb of Tel Aviv, he located the cross. He negotiated a purchase price of seven million dollars, raising the money on the Gallery’s Swiss bank account, fully aware of the storm this would raise among the Board members. He couldn’t care. He wanted the Crusaders’ Cross.

Then Jerry’s problems magnified.

A death threat from the drug gang.

Shadowy figures from the international art world were following him.

Sotheby’s, with agents everywhere, were trying to trip him up legally or not.

He had a pouch made for the cross to disguise it from airport security screens. He paid – dearly – for false travel documents, and slipped over the border into Jordan.

Using the last of his American dollars in Amman, he paid for his fare home, travelling triumphant. He had made it. He was absolutely elated as he walked into the Gallery, and opened up the travel-pouch. The Crusaders’ Cross was his.

It was a curatorial coup. Jerry could expect to be appointed Director of any world-standard Gallery. But he knew he didn’t want to be. He remained for the rest of his working life Senior Curator where he was, so that every morning, he could come to work and gaze on the Crusaders’ Cross.

He didn’t mind the letters from his wife’s solicitors seeking divorce. His wife and teenage son had been so hurt because they had lost his attention when he began seeking the cross that they could no longer see themselves as the loving family they had been for eighteen years.

He went from being the most popular member of staff at the Gallery to the least liked. His fellow-workers could not understand the change in Jerry. But Jerry ignored them.

Notwithstanding the high cost of acquiring the Crusaders’ Cross – his family, friends, and reputation – Jerry was happy. He had his heart’s desire. His pearl.

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The shortest of the parables of Jesus, the parable of the pearl is here, in my translation.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

What sort of person would seek obsessively for God, as the pearl merchant did?

What have you found of great value in your life? Tell the story of how you found it, or how you found you had it.

Is all religious activity healthy?

The Story born of the Father and the Spirit

JOHN’S CHRISTMAS STORY

John 1:1-14

Right from the beginning, there was the Story. And the story was very near to God. God was the Story. 2 This Story was so close to God at the start. 3 Everything was made in it, and nothing that came into being was made without its intervention. 4 In this Story was Life, and the Life was the Light for human beings. 5 And the Light beamed upon the darkness, and the darkness could not blot it out.

6 Along came a man sent from God called John. 7 This man came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, so that everyone might believe through him. 8 This man was not the Light, but he came to bear witness respecting the Light. 9 The Light dawning on the universe was utterly trustworthy. It beams into the life of all humanity. 10 It was in the universe, and the universe was made in it, and the universe did not recognise it. 11 He came to his own family, but his own family did not take him in. 12 To those who did take him in he gave the right to become God’s children. That is, those who believed in his name 13 were born not by physical reproduction nor by sexual desire nor by the stubborn choice of man. Rather, they originated from God.

14 So the Story came to life and circulated among us, and we gazed upon its majesty, the majesty of the Father’s only Son, overflowing with charm and integrity.

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The word “Logos”, often translated as “Word”, is also often translated as Story. In my translation I use this meaning and try to follow the image through.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

Have you ever felt angry because someone has rejected someone’s love – and placed obstacles in their path?

How does Jesus live in your life? How do you experience incarnation today?

Tell the story of a time you have felt the connection between the present and the eternal future.

In the Pits

Well, I’m stuck here.

I’m sunk.

In the mud at the bottom of the well.

I’m clagged in up to my knees.

My world is just the slimy sensation of mud past my ankles, and, when I look up, a circle of blue sky broken by the bucket and its winder. If they leave me here much longer, I’ll have to sit down. Then I’ll be even more in the mud. And I am tired. Tired of this job the Lord Yahweh has given me. Tired of being the only one who can see clearly. Tired of being squeezed between God and the vacillating politicians. A bit of faith would vaccinate them against vacillation. You see, even here in this well, in this not-well, I can’t resist a pun.

If those wavering weevils don’t pull me out, I’ll starve. A quick sword thrust through the old heart would have been better. The king did shrug his royal shoulders and say, “Do what you like with Jeremiah.” That was an open invitation to illegal execution, and they’ve chosen the slow sleigh.

And you want to know about faith under pressure. I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask right now. You’ve heard Abraham’s story. He had no doubts, despite his impossible choice: his faith or his son. He’s a much better example than I am right now.

I see things too straight. That’s always been my problem.

It always would have been much better for me to have said, “Everything’s all right. Assyria won’t attack. We don’t need to worry. The boiling jug in the north won’t bubble over onto us. I am a prophet. God will look after us.” I would have lost fewer friends, particularly in high places,with that line. But I didn’t. And Assyria did attack, just as I saw it would have to. And I had to restrain myself from gloating, “Told you so! God told you so!”

I would have been much more popular if I talked about how invincible Judah was, instead of cracking pots to get through their heads that if Assyria didn’t smash us to pot-shards, then Babylon would crack our pots together. A hostile super-power is still a hostile super-power even when it changes its name and moves to a new capital.

So they call me a crackpot, because they don’t like to hear the obvious truth. So obvious that I can say without a doubt “this is what the Lord Yahweh says”. It’s what the Lord says because it’s self-evidently true. Like the Italians say, “tru-issimo”. They didn’t get used to my sense of humour either.

Specially when I told them they stunk like a pair of underpants stuck in the brackish shallows of the Jordan. At least they listened to that. When I told them they were as a ripe as summer-fruit past its prime time, they thought it was a compliment. But the rotten underpants gave them something to think about.

So I don’t think I can tell you much about faith under pressure.

Maybe you should ask some of the peaceful Christians in the new nation of South Sudan at the moment.

The ones who don’t follow the party line of blessing the war.

The ones who want only peace and justice and shudder at the idea of killing the Muslim fighters from the north.

What can they do? Practically nothing. Yet they go on in faith, squeezed every way, under huge pressure, looking unflinchingly to their little circle of the truth, because they know that they are told mostly lies. They know much more than I do about faith under pressure.

I just know what I see. I just know I have to tell it the way I see it. That’s the only way I can be true to that vocation I first felt at 18 years old in Anathoth. And now, thirty years later, I’ve got to the end of the story. The end of the story of telling it the way you see it. You end up squelching in ankle-deep mud with a distant view of blue sky. I think I’ll sit down and make it waist-deep mud. There’s a pun in that, I think. You end up wasted.

Do I think Yahweh will get me out of this sodden well? Maybe. That’s his business. Mine has been to keep things straight in my mind. To see clearly and to speak clearly. To speak conspicuously anyway. To speak so people will take notice of what I see. Faith is faith whether it’s under pressure or not, because faith is about seeing things the way they really are.

I’m a prophet, but I can’t see the future. I can see only a small circle of blue sky. And I’ll pin my hopes on that. It’s not much but it’s still there.

Whether I’m pulled out of here, or whether I die in this mud, Jerusalem will still fall. Zedekiah will still have his eyes put out with hissing hot irons: not that that poor and weak King has ever used them to see straight. What God has proposed will happen.

But as for me, my faith is reduced to a blue circle. That’s all I can really say to you when you ask about faith under pressure. To keep your eyes on what is. Not what you’d like to be, not what you think is the case, not what someone else tells you to believe, but on what really is. And even if your field of vision is reduced to just a tiny blue circle, keep your eyes on that. Not on the tunnel of darkness, nor on the slopping mud, just on what you know is right.

It’s a funny thing about faith. If you have faith in Christ you have faith in everything. If you put your faith in the living God, then you have faith in the future of the whole Universe. But if your own experience of faith in God gets squeezed smaller and smaller, then so does your faith in a good outcome for the Universe. Your blue circle gets tighter and tinier. But remember, that’s where reality is. In your blue circle.

One last pun. Some people say, if you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. Just now, I’d prefer to say it like this. If you’re at the end of your rope, start climbing.

The only place a rope will come from is that small blue circle. Faith under pressure is prepared to climb out.

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The Contemporary English Version tells the story of Jeremiah being put into the well.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

Reflect on the people you know who like word play. Is there any connection between having fun with words and spiritual health? Might there be?

Is it possible to find happiness and yet be aware of the world’s suffering? Under what circumstances?

What circumstances make you feel imprisoned? And how have you pushed back the bars of that imprisonment?

The Man Who Had Everything

This is the story of the Man who had Everything, Col-Yesh-Li*. The Kingdom of Col-Yesh-Li stretched from one end of the universe to the other. The kingdom of Col-Yesh-Li contained rich rolling farm-lands, producing crops so thick you could hardly walk through them. Succulent pastures grew sleek sheep and cattle with always plenty to eat.

The lakes of the Kingdom of Col-Yesh-Li were said to reflect the deep brilliant blue of the eyes of Col-Yesh-Li. The mountains, some higher than Everest, were a symbol of his strength. There were tropical rain forests and wild wildernesses making a statement of his vigour and vitality.

In the middle of this vast Kingdom was an amazing palace. Not only were the sweeping classical lines of its architecture a joy to the eye, but the white marble walls throbbed with human life: traders and travellers from the far reaches of the Kingdom reported on the wonders they had seen. Wise women and priests were on hand with clear-sighted advice. There were no soldiers. Col-Yesh-Li believed the greatest strength was in peace.

Every morning lines of people came through the magnificent parks to the main sweeping staircase of the palace to seek advice or resolution of conflicts with their neighbours. All were entertained in the spacious halls of the palace with fine food and drink, and each was received courteously by Col-Yesh-Li himself, and each went away with their question resolved.

But Col-Yesh-Li was dying. He banished all from the great palace, and lay down on a concrete slab to prepare himself for death. He lay and thought of his great kingdom.

He thought of the farm fields drying up; crops failing. He thought of the cows and sheep disappearing. The lakes and the rivers arid and empty. The great trees of the rain-forest unleaving. The wilderness transforming to desert.

He lay alone in his palace. No human life remained. No life at all, except Col-Yesh-Li. In each of his deeply blue eyes a tear formed. The tears flowed down each side of his face on to the concrete slab where he lay. A mist began to take shape over the renowned form of Col-Yesh-Li, as the tears trickled in twin rivulets across the floor of the echoing room, and along the empty corridors. They became streams as they ran down the grand entry staircase, and small rivers as they flowed through the now parched princely parks.

And as they ran, the parks re-greened. The crops self-seeded, and proceeded to produce legendary yields. The pastures sprung to new life, as the twin rivers flooded to the rain-forest and the wilderness, generating new vigour and prodigious growth.

And Col-Yesh-Li was breathing his last breaths. At the very moment the mist covered him, and his breathing stopped, there was a yell.

It was a baby in the palace of Col-Yesh-Li. A baby bellowing the unstoppable gift of new life.

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* In the language of Biblical Hebrew, “col yesh li” means “everything that there is, is his.”

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When I first wrote the story of Col-Yesh-Li, I believe I was influenced by the healing rivers in Ezekiel 47:1-12. Several people who have heard the story were reminded of the rivers in Genesis 2. Flooding rivers is symbolism that can surely overlap and expand!

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

¨ Where do the deep springs of your life come from? What makes you feel strongly? What encourages you to be full of energy? Where do you look for energy and passion in your life?

¨ The person who has everything needs the gift of self-giving. What do people mean when they say that “riches can’t buy you happiness”?

¨ When have you experienced someone’s (or some One’s) generosity?

The Man With a Heavy Tongue

I’ve got a heavy tongue. I’ve always known that. When you’re listening to me sometimes you will find it hard to understand me. It can take a long time for me to get around to saying what I really mean. I’ve got used to the fact that God’s people have got used to me and my temper. I’ve never got used to it. I killed a man once. An Egyptian. I lost it when I saw how he was treating a Hebrew slave. Any injustice makes me an intemperate man and I can’t control this heavy tongue.

After spending a wonderful week close up to Yahweh on Mount Sinai, I could not contain my fury when I saw God’s people committing the worst sin of idolatry. It just wasn’t fair to the Lord Yahweh. But I should have lightened my tongue and explained myself instead of just exploding so hard that I broke those two granite tablets.

And I really wonder at times. My brother has a tongue of quicksilver. Would it have been different if he had been God’s ambassador to Pharaoh and not me? If Aaron had pleaded for Yahweh’s people my Egyptian family could have been spared all those calamities: boils, water turned to blood, flies and first-born murders. I kept tripping over my tongue and confronting Pharaoh. My heavy tongue. But I got on with the task Yahweh had given me. And I don’t usually dwell on what might have been.

I guess my heavy tongue gives me an advantage. I’m slow to answer. I listen when people bring their disputes. I just don’t get a word in. But I get fired up by the one who is wrong, and when my heavy tongue eventually gets working, they trust my judgements, and come back for more… and more. Actually I took some persuading to change the system so that others could help the people sort out their disputes too.

Speaking of being fired up, you remember how I was fired up by that burning bush changed my life. I stopped then being an Egyptian prince on the run as a murderer and started being my real self. But my heavy tongue stopped me asking for what I really wanted. I saw the angel of the Lord in the spouting leaping flames. I heard God himself speak and pronounce his name, Yahweh, “I am who I am”. But I did not see what I dearly yearned to see: the glory of God himself, and I did not ask for it. “I hid my face, for I was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)

And there’s something really strange about that. It’s not strange to be afraid to look at the glory of God. We all know that you can’t see God and live. What was strange was that the very thing I longed to see in God was deeply connected to the very thing in me that was a barrier. Let me explain. In my language, the word for heavy is kavod. I have a heavy tongue, a tongue that is kavod, and my heavy tongue has always stopped me for asking God for my deepest desire: to actually see his glory. The word for “glory” is the same word: kavod. Thekavod of my tongue stops me seeing the kavod of God.

There’s something deep in me that gets in my way when I try to see God in all his glory, when I try to open myself to seeing God as God really is. For me it means, what I really want from God, I can’t ask for.

But God is overwhelmingly good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned that’s new in the history of.humanity, it’s that connection. God and goodness go together. Religion and morality are deeply connected. God is good. Eventually, after the supreme privilege of being the channel by which God’s good Law was delivered to his people, God lightened my tongue. I asked.

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Moses asks to see the glory of God – and God responds in the New Revised Standard Version here.

There is an interesting, but inconclusive, scholarly article on Moses’ heavy tongue in the Bulletin of the American Schools for Oriental Research BASOR,231 (1978) 57-62, which you may be able to access here.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

Have you ever experienced the “kavod” – the heavy glory of God. What was it like? or what do you think it would be like?

Tell the story of someone (like Aaron) who finds it easy to put their experience of God into words.

Write the story of a deeply committed Christian who seriously believes that freedom in Christ means freedom from morality.

The Witness

The climb up Yahweh-Jireh in the wastelands of Moriah brought me to the edge of insanity, but I honestly don’t think it shook my faith in Lord Yahweh, blessed be his Name.

The lands of Moriah are barren and windswept, bad lands where even sheep don’t bother to go. They are dotted by rounded steep hills which at first glance look identical to each other. Actually each one is slightly different in height and shape. It’s a maddening place to find your way through. You are never sure of landmarks, and even the sun casts shadows in unpredictable directions off and around those hillocks. A place to lose your way and your mind.

The only place to go when God asks you to weigh up what you value most: your faith or your son. How can you make such a value choice? My faith gives me life; my son is the brightness of my life. Everything I have comes from God, and I acknowledge that by faith. Everything I am, and everything that I have produced, is summed up in my son.

I think I would die of grief and emotion if my son was taken from me by disease or accident. I know I would die from the spirit down if my faith was taken from me. Yet here was I being asked to actually take the initiative in killing off one or the other. Your son or your faith. This was not the thief’s choice of

“your money or your life”.

This was the no-win choice of

“your life … or your life”.

We set off, travelling light. Just two servants, young men who would not awkward questions, new workers for whom I hadn’t yet built up that lifelong sense of mutual loyalty. But I travelled with that heavy-heart of dread that drags a man down, dreading the moment when Isaac and I had to leave them and go on on our own.

Isaac could ask awkward questions. He always had that sense of freedom with me. I encouraged it, indulged him, if I tell the truth, because he was the son of my old age, the miracle of God’s provision. You can’t believe the joy of knowing that one time in my life when I was capable of fathering a son, and the even more intense joy that that son turned out to be Isaac. Don’t blame an old man for spoiling his son, for idolising what God had given, when his faith had proved him right.

Yet for all my errors, God was never faithless. God never let me down. You might feel it was cruel of God to place that ultimate test before me: stand and deliver, man; hand over your faith or your son. Your life or your life.

It was hard to bear, I can tell you that. My throat cramped with pathos at Isaac’s innocent question. “Father, the fire and the wood I see for a burnt offering, but where is the lamb?” I choked out my reply, “Yahweh Jireh” … God will provide. No logic in my answer, but it was the deepest statement I could give. With my whole being, I knew it in my depths. Yahweh Jireh. God will provide.

But I was caught, like a ram caught in a drafting race. I had to go through with it: The fascinating horror of it all drew me on. I built the altar on the desolate hill-top. My hands carried stone after stone, building what I thought was his tomb. Isaac was eager to help. “Father, let me carry that large stone,” he kept saying, each offer a stiff blow to my chest.

Numb to the core, I motioned to my lovely son to lie on the wood on top of our altar. I tied him there with a rope, forcing myself to look into the beautiful eyes consenting strangely with patience and trust to this ultimate violation.

As he lay, his head fell back a little, not fully supported by the dry branches. His throat was exposed. I raised the monstrous knife, my eyes affixed to that new skin, not yet stubbled with a man’s beard, and my brain seemed to explode as I brought down the knife thrusting to kill God’s most precious gift.

After that appalling moment, I opened my eyes. Isaac was alive. My hand was still above my head, still poised, but there was no purpose left in it. The knife hung slack like a broken question mark. My head was light, almost dizzy. I vaguely realised that a sacrifice was about to take place, and there, caught in a thicket of thorn bushes, was a ram. A most pleasing subject for a burnt offering. Yahweh Jireh. The Lord had provided. The feeling in the depth of my being was right: deeply and marvellously right and in tune with the heart beat of the Universe: In the most desperate, the most threatening, the most tearing apart experiences, trust and wait. Yahweh Jireh.

God knows what that choice is like. God also sent his son to a wasteland – the loveless, lifeless, sad place that Israel was under Roman occupation – and took his lovely son Jesus up the hill of Calvary and broke his heart too.

God, though, completed what I couldn’t complete. He allowed the sacrifice of his only Son, his only hope for the future. He killed him off. From my experience I can whisper of some of the pain which that caused God. Some of his grief, some of his extreme agony. God brought that knife down and took the breath away from the son whom he loved as his own life.

But my experience also tells me of the deep hope that runs strongly underneath even in that nightmare time. The knowledge – far deeper than wishful thinking, far more real than casual hoping – the sure knowledge that Yahweh Jireh – it will be provided.

Surely Yahweh himself had that deep knowledge as he waited for the resurrection of Jesus – Yahweh himself must have shouted with joy on the first Easter Sunday, “Yahweh Jireh” – my son is given back to me!

Surely each one of you, though you may not, as I was, be driven to the edge of madness, but simply as you live, as you cope with joy and sorrow, as you experience the attainment of relationships and their breaking-up, as your career paths open and close, with all that makes up life, you too can shout with the deep knowledge “Yahweh Jireh” – in God’s providence, it will be provided.

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The New Revised Standard Version of the story of Abraham and Isaac is here.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

As someone’s son or daughter, you have observed the pain of parenting. If you are a parent, you will know that pain from inside. Does God the parent actually feel the pain of parenting?

Discuss the ways in which we avoid the emotional aspects of the cross of Christ.

Re-write the end of Abraham’s story from the point at which Abraham and Isaac are building the altar. What else could have happened?

The Big Boat

I remember it was hot the day it came to me that I had to save my family by building a ferry boat. We had our kefirs wrapped around our faces to filter the hot air from the stinging red sand and dust. The last thing on our mind was water. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe our parched throats and heat-weary legs were dreaming just below the surface of endless supplies of water, oceans of fresh cool water.

I can’t honestly say that I thought God was speaking to me. That realisation came later. No, the idea to build a boat was just that – an obsessive thought, one I couldn’t get rid of. It stayed there in my mind on that hot day and throughout the long hot week. To start building a boat there in the desert with the south wind whipping up from Arabia was about the most irrational project I could imagine.

But it was there in my mind. And that it came from God grew from an idea to a conviction as I prayed about it, argued about it, tried to push it out of my mind. What became important was not building a boat in the hot desert. What became important was doing God’s will.

It was funny how my idea of doing God’s will changed over those weeks. I’d always tried to be decent, you know, never hurt anyone, never do anyone down in business if I could help it, honest in what I said and did. I don’t think I was anyone marvellous. It’s just that there was a shortage of people with integrity that made the writers say I was righteous. I was just someone who tried to do the right thing,, and I thought that was all God wanted from me. That was my understanding of doing God’s will … until that hot day.

I guess I felt that this building a boat was a kind of test: as if God was saying that this is the time when I had to put my money where my mouth was, where I had to give an indication in real life that I believed what I said I believed: that God was righteous and therefore had the authority to tell me what to do, how to run my life. Even if that meant building a boat several miles from the dry billabongs of the Euphrates.

That’s probably what I argued about most – not the boat, but God’s right to run my life. Back and forth in my mind and prayers. I did a lot of restless walking in those few weeks before I committed myself to building God’s boat. What do I obey: my reason, or this obsessive nagging that might come from God? What do I risk: my pride – what a fool I would seem building boats then, and there, or do I risk my family that God had entrusted me with? In the end, do I decide how to run my life, or does God?

To tell you the truth, I never came up with what you would call final answers to those questions, because my arguing led me somewhere else. It came to me that I wasn’t arguing simply within myself. It wasn’t just a rational discussion going on inside my mind. I eventually realised that I was arguing with a someone, a someone who took my arguing seriously, a someone who obviously thought it mattered that I be convinced about the boat; yes, but also about the fact that this someone wanted his rightful authority over my decisions and actions.

This someone was insistent that I obeyed, but he cared. This someone was the God I had talked about, but never experienced – never really imagined that he was there in any real sense, and I found him in that struggle over the boat.

They’ve told me since that my great-great-great-grandson Jacob experienced something similar at the Brook Jabbok, east of here. A struggle, that became a struggle with a someone, and the someone became more real and more important than the struggle. It’s what happens when you read the Bible. It kind of talks back sometimes. A someone is there as you struggle with its words.

Well, that was the first part of what happened to me. A struggle that turned out to be my first ever honest prayer; an argument with a real God who cared enough to argue back – and win!

I was in a position to be eccentric. I had the means to obtain the wood and the tar, and the tools, but it took some trouble. This insistent God was beginning to take up quite a bit of time. A big boat like that, you know, takes community co-operation. I had to tell people what I was building. I had to pay people to work on it. Some laughed at me. You can understand that. All they could see was the desert. They didn’t hear the distant echo of an insistent call to obedience that came from beyond what you can see.

But it was hardest with my family. With my wife and boys. In a sense I was doing it for them. Their survival was at stake, I knew, but how could I begin to tell them? They thought for a while that I had really become unstuck. And all I could do was trust: trust what I’d heard, trust that interchange of prayer and arguing; trust that if God intended to bring them through the impending flood, then they would listen too. To God, if not to me.

I think that was my hardest lesson. Having to hand my family over to God. To be confident that God had every intention of looking after them. I was a patriarch after all, the head of a family, and everyone expected me to take my family responsibilities with life and death seriousness. Including me. I gradually had to learn to do that a new way.

As I talk to the thousands of souls that have come to this place since those exciting times, I have come to realise I am not alone in finding it hard to let go, and let God take the ultimate responsibility for my family.

But it was necessary for me. It would have been pointless for just me to have been the only passenger on that boat. They needed to come too, and I had to trust that God would deal with them in time, in God’s time.

When I first told them my plans of building a boat, there was a lot of tension in the big tent. They say they don’t remember that now. What they remember is the next stage, when they bit by bit gave time to helping construct the boat.

The first time Japheth came over, I remember well. He walked around the laid out timbers. I could see his mind ticking over, taking in the design, working out the order of jobs we would need to do. He didn’t say anything for quite a few minutes then picked up the next timber I needed – the keel piece as it happened. “This one, Dad?” he asked. What encouragement I took from that simple question. Next day, Shem and Ham came too, and our working together became a harmonious game.

We had this sense together, we didn’t talk about it much, of being called together to the task. We’d always been pretty close (at least, Shem and Japheth and I were: I never really felt I got close to Ham, not even after the Flood), always pretty close, but the trust and understanding that grew between us as worked together on God’s task was quite extraordinary.

It was then we realised how much trust God was placing in us in asking us to build this boat. We came to the conviction that there was more to what we were being asked than our own survival, somehow God was depending on us to preserve the whole creation. Our salvation was tied up with each other, but also with the whole universe.

We were talking about the local desert animals, lizards and birds, mainly, and how they would get on in the flood, and wondered whether it would be feasible to bring them on to the boat. But God had much more in mind than that, and we didn’t get much warning either.

We’d seen the clouds far to the north, and a caravan came by heading south with the news that the Euphrates was rising, more than had ever been seen in a lifetime. And the animals for miles around were driven in front of the flooding river, hundreds of them. By the time the swollen river came to our tent, the river was right up to the tent-poles, and the frightened animals simply ran straight into the bottom deck of the boat. Amazing how many different species there were.

That night, the river simply ripped through the sandhills round our tent, and like it or not we were afloat. As I look back on those forty days and forty nights – we counted every single one of them – I realise the mixture of emotions that we all had. There was grief: grief for our friends, grief for the big tent and the life-style we had to leave behind, grief from moving so suddenly from the known to the wet darkness of the unknown.

And there was excitement too. Excitement in being caught up in something so much bigger than ourselves, in being part of an extraordinary and unheard of rescue, excitement in realising that the beyond had broken into the danger and dreariness of material life.

And we had an honest experience of confidence in God’s provision. I say honest, because we didn’t always feel confident. We gradually learned that confidence in God is much deeper than our day to day feelings. Every one of those forty mornings on that boat, we woke up, we were alive, and we thanked God. But we looked out and could only see the devastation of swelling muddy waters, from horizon to horizon. We were lost, and scared – desperate sometimes, but the point was, we were dependent on God, and that’s what we could trust.

It’s not surprising that St Peter and the early Church said that the Flood was a picture of the waters of baptism, a picture of the Christian life. Because every Christian comes to learn what I, Noah experienced – the struggle through to the reality of God’s presence, the ongoing dilemma of who is in charge of my life, knowing of course that it should be God, the King of the Universe, the grief of always moving from the comfortable and the conforming to the new and risky, the excitement of being caught up in God’s amazing rescue plan for the whole of his universe, the grace of being invited to co-operate with God, and learning, learning slowly and surely, that we can trust this strange God with our lives and the lives of our loved ones, because in the end, God is our only hope.

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You can read the New Revised Standard Version of Genesis 7-9 here.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

Where in your story has God persuaded you to make life changes?

Have you ever experienced your current life being swept away? How has God kept you afloat?

What would you ask Noah if you could meet him?

The Wisdom of the Craftswoman

The craftswoman sat still in solitary joy for the whole of eternity. All at once, a fire ball shot from her mouth, so intense in its brightness and heat that all the angels and archangels turned their heads and covered their eyes.

The fire ball expanded with great power and energy. As it expanded, it was preceded by unseen waves of a fluid that went before the exploding fire ball and sucked everything in.

The craftswoman, seeking to bring order to this wild energy, crafted from a material so strong, so light and almost invisible, a force field that she placed in front of the sucking waves. It bent the waves so that they went around it, creating a small safe spot, like a cave near the rocky caves high above the swelling waves, or like when you crook your two hands to protect a delicate flower as the rain is pelting down.

In the lee of the little force field the power of the sucking waves was reduced enough so that dry could be sorted out from wet, and there were some boundaries and delimitations.

The craftswoman adjusted the strong material of her barrier so that the enormous light and heat of the fire ball filtered through to the rich volcanic soil and the water teeming with nutrition.

And this little life capsule was really good.

She bent down and made some plants, trees, and grass, and stunningly beautiful flowering bushes. Into each she placed seed pods with a message that would carry each kind through its long journey through time.

And these plants were really good.

Next the craftswoman fashioned living things that ran and jumped, that flew and crept along the earth, that swam in the seas and climbed in the trees. And into each of these she placed her special seed pods with the messages to take them through time.

And these living animals were really good.

Next the wise craftswoman knelt down and formed two tiny creatures … tiny compared even to the little life-capsule and minuscule in comparison with the vast universe of the fire-ball and the waves of unseen fluid .. two tiny creatures, who ran, and also carried the special seed pod. Onto these two creatures, she placed the whole burden of her destiny.

And these two creatures were really very good.

And the craftswoman sat backed and wondered throughout the whole of time whether she would end up sitting in solitary joy, but shot through with pain of loneliness, or whether she might just end up surrounded with the love of her tiny creatures who carried her destiny in them.

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Click here to read the translation which inspired this story.

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Questions for reflection or group discussion.

 

Have you ever encountered the energy of the wise craftswoman? Where? And what difference did it make to your life?

 

¨How do you celebrate your own creation? What do you celebrate on your birthday? What gift can you make to God simply because you are here in this life capsule?

 

Genesis 1 is a poem. Write a poem, or paint a picture, or caress some clay to join in the creativity of the wise craftswoman.