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Ash Wednesday

For tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I wrote a monologue, retelling the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) from the perspective of one of her accusers.  I admit that I have embellished some of the details of the story (such as knowing what Jesus wrote) but I don’t feel any guilt about that!

~~~

I didn’t know her personally, you know, but I knew who she was.  I knew about the rumours, the reputation.  I knew what she’d done. What they said she’d done anyway.

I knew about him too, but he was a well respected public figure so we tried to keep his name out of it.  It wouldn’t go down well if he got caught up in the scandal.

It just makes me sick, you know, when people do things that are so patently wrong.  The law is clear, you don’t do it!  The punishment is clear too.  None of us enjoy this part of the job, it’s brutal, but someone has to do it and for now that’s us.

We got the tip-off from a neighbour early that morning.  Said she’d seen her sneaking in late at night but not out again so we knew she was likely to still be there.

As we entered the house I caught a glimpse of his face.  He looked at her with such tenderness, such love in his eyes.  But as soon as he spotted us that love turned to anger and he thrust her in our direction, “get this woman out of here” he shouted.

So that’s what we did.  We’d caught her in the act so there was no question that she was guilty.  You could see it in her eyes, she knew what she’d done, she knew what was coming.

We got to the temple just as the sun was beginning to creep over the hills, its golden light shone on the pale walls and scattered off the healing pools.

There would be no healing here today though, not for her.  This was the end of the road – the law had been broken and the punishment was death.

As we arrived in our little corner of the temple – out of the way so the tourists didn’t get put off – we tied her up and began to look around for suitable stones, not too big, not too small.  But as we turned back towards her we saw that she was not alone.

Someone was actually bending down and talking to her!  Perhaps it was one of the pilgrims who didn’t know what was going on but no, he looked like a Rabbi – surely he couldn’t misread a situation like this?

As he stood up and turned towards us I recognised his face, this was that new hotshot rabbi that everyone was talking about, the one who’d been making waves all through the countryside.  

Not the most popular chap around here if I’m honest, everyone wanted to be the one to get the better of him, to outwit him with some clever theological argument.  So far no-one had managed it. 

As we looked at each other we realised that maybe this could be our chance.  There was no loophole here, she’d committed the crime, been caught in the act, and the punishment was clear.  He couldn’t wriggle out of this one surely?

“Teacher”, our boss said to him, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now, what do you say?”  Seemed like a pretty watertight argument to me!

We all waited with baited breath see what he would say, would he step aside and let us stone her?  Seemed unlikely given what we knew about him.  But surely he wouldn’t contradict Moses’ teaching?  Not here in the temple with dozens of witnesses?

For a moment he looked at us with such deep sadness in his eyes then, glancing back at the terrified woman behind him, he knelt down and started writing in the dust with his finger.

It took a moment to work out what he was writing, it wasn’t easy to make out, but I think it was a verse from the Torah,

You are dust, and to dust you shall return” 

What did that mean?  He didn’t seem to be in any rush to answer our question and and after a while it seemed like he was just stalling for time so we kept pressing him.

“Come on Rabbi, what do you say?”

Slowly he stood up, brushed the dust off his hands and looked each of us in the eye.

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her

It took a moment to sink in, but when it did it was like I’d been struck by the rock I was holding.  Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

I looked at the woman again, really looked this time.  I saw the blood trickling down her cheek were we’d struck her.  I saw her hands, delicate fingers hardened by a life of hard work.  Through a rip in her dress I saw the stretch marks from a past pregnancy.  I didn’t know she had children, what would happen to them now?  I no longer saw the guilt, I saw the person.

And then I looked back at Jesus, and his eyes were like a mirror into my own soul.

I saw the bitterness I’d kept bottled up from all those times I didn’t get my own way.  I saw the fear that masqueraded as zealousness for God.  I saw the lack of compassion, of understanding, for anyone who didn’t agree with me.

I saw all those mistakes I’d made, mistakes I’d written off as ‘character flaws’, and suddenly I could see how others had been hurt by them.

As this washed over me in a flood of regret and sorrow, the stone in my hand felt like it weighed as much as one of the huge blocks that made up the temple wall.

I looked back towards the woman, but I couldn’t look her in the eye.  The guilt and shame I felt was so overwhelming I just turned and walked away.

As I walked the stone slipped from my hand and with it went the weight I’d been carrying around for so, so long.  The burden of guilt that had built up inside was suddenly washed away.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

And from that day on that is what I tried to do, each day.  Of course I still made mistakes, who doesn’t.  But in acknowledging them, and repenting of them, they don’t weigh on me as heavily as they once did.

I even went to see the woman again, to try and put things right there.  But when I saw her from a distance, playing with her daughter, she looked so happy, like Jesus had given her a second chance in life. So I didn’t go any closer.  

I knew exactly how she felt.
© Rich Clarkson 2017

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Ten green bottles…

I’ve written this for my sermon today, it’s the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus where only one came back to say thankyou.  I started wondering what it would be like to tell the story from the perspective of one who didn’t go back to say thanks.

Simple costume (towel headband, no stole) to identify character

It’s hard, being caught in the middle like that. Neither one thing nor the other.  We used to joke about it! We had to joke about it, we would have just given up otherwise.  There were ten of us, ten outcasts, ten refugees, ten…nobodies. Ten green bottles, went the joke – which of us would fall first?

I remember when I first realised what was happening. The rash which led to the stares which led to the avoidance, which led to the exile.  I had been happy, I had a good job, a lovely family, it was all taken away so quickly.  The problem is that once you’ve got that label you can’t shift it. That’s how they define you – you’re an outcast, an untouchable, one of “them”  So we had to stick with our own kind, our new own kind.

There were ten of us, some from Galilee, some from Samaria and we hung about in the scrubland between the two regions.  They hated each other so not many people crossed between them which suited us just fine.

The great irony is that before all this I had treated the Samaritans just like my people were now treating me!  I’d kept my distance, I’d told jokes behind their backs, even laughed about ‘Samaratianitis’ being infectious. Now that I think about it I was proper horrible to them.  The Samaritans in our group are just normal people, once you get your head round the accent they’re no different from the rest of us.  So there we were, ten nobodies, living a half-life in no-mans-land.  Ten green bottles, waiting to fall.

Then we started to hear the rumours. Rumours of a healer, Rumours of a Rabbi who wasn’t afraid, Rumours of a way out.  Now these kind of rumours fly around our community all the time so you have to take them with a pinch of salt – people with no hope will take whatever crumbs of hope they can get.  But these rumours wouldn’t go away so, without anything better to do, we kept an eye out for this itinerant young Rabbi.

One day the ten of us were sat in the dust, trying to find whatever shade we could behind the old wall when we saw movement in the distance.  There was someone coming towards us, heading South towards the village. I’m sure he spotted us about the same time we spotted him but, unusually, he didn’t turn away.  He just kept plodding on through the heat towards the village.  When he got close enough to hear us we began our usual begging routine: “Spare some change mate?”

Now usually there are three types of responses to this.  Some chuck a few coins towards us before scuttling past, some look guilty but walk on by anyway, and some just walk past like we weren’t even there.  This guy was different, he didn’t ignore us but he didn’t get any money out either. He just…stood there, like he was waiting for us to say something.

What was that Rabbi’s name? Joshua? Jairus? Jesus! “Jesus!” We called out. He smiled.  “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!” we cried, like our lives depended on it, which, I guess, they did. “Have mercy!”  He took a step forward. Instinctively we took a step back.  “Go!”, he called out. Our hearts began to sink. I’m not sure I could cope with yet another disappointment. “Go…and show yourselves to the priests”.  We all knew what that meant, the priests were the only ones who could say that we were better, say that we were no longer unclean, no longer outcasts, exiles, refugees.

Excitedly I looked at my hands, expecting them to be miraculously better but…they weren’t.  How many hours, how many long, angry hours had I stared at those scars, willing, wishing, praying for them to disappear, all to no avail. And now it was like those same scars were draining away the surge of hope I had felt. How could I show myself to the priests looking like this? They’d laugh me back out of town!

“Go on”, he urged, more gently this time, “go and show yourselves to the priests”.

To turn and make that first step was about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They talk about stepping out in faith but I’m not sure how much faith I had left by this point.  It was more a case of stepping out in desparation but I managed it and once I’d taken that first step the second seemed a little easier.

I heard my mates just behind me so I inched ahead. If we were doing this then I was going to be first. Soon we were all running full pelt towards the village where we knew there was a little synagogue.  As I ran I felt my muscles getting stronger, I felt my fists clench tighter, I felt more alive than I had done in years! I didn’t dare look at my hands again, I couldn’t cope with another setback so I just concentrated on running and let the wind do its work.

When we finally made it to the synagogue we banged on the door and as the priest opened it we tumbled inside.  I don’t know how he made sense of our ramblings but eventually he got the gist of it and, after inspecting each of us he pronounced us all clean.

Then he got some parchment and started handing us notes to confirm this. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9. Nine? But there were ten of us? Who wasn’t here? One of the samaritans. Maybe he’d gone the other way, into Samaria? No that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he’d not been healed? No he was definitely with us. What had happened to him? I staggered to my feet and stuck my head out of the synagogue door.

In the distance I could see two figures. One was out on the road, walking slowly towards the village, the other was running away from the village towards him. As they met, the second figure threw himself on the floor at the feet of the first. In an instant I realised what was happening – he was saying thankyou! I had been so caught up in my own feelings I’d barely thought about thanking the man who had transformed my life!

I turned back to my friends in the synagogue and told them what I’d seen, said that we should go back and say thankyou as well but when I looked back towards the road he was gone. There was just the solitary figure of our companion making his own journey towards the synagogue.

My life was completely changed after that day. I went back to my home town, complete with my certificate proving that I was ok, that I was clean again.
I was welcomed back into my family, I got a new job, picked up the pieces of my life again. But I was never quite the same.

Whenever my mates started making fun of the Samaritans I’d make them stop, I’d tell them that we shouldn’t fear people just because they are different from us – we are more alike than you know.
Whenever I saw someone sleeping on the streets I’d stop and talk to them, look them in the eye.

And even from a distance I kept an ear out for news of Jesus.
I heard rumours that he’d been rounded up and killed by the Romans for associating with people like me. I heard even stranger rumours that he was seen alive again afterwards.

And although I never got to say thankyou to him in person I make sure that I never take what I have for granted. That I am thankful every day for the new life that God has given me.

A roof over my head, a meal in my belly, a hug from a friend – these have taken on a whole new meaning for me. They are no longer ordinary, everyday things.

They are blessings from God, who lifts up the downtrodden and comforts the brokenhearted.

Blessings from God who turns mourning into laughter and tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Blessings from God, whose mercies are new every morning, even when the night has been long and dark.

And for that I will always be thankful.

The Gift of Attention

hands

All four beds in the room were empty as I entered, but three of the bedside chairs were occupied. Two of the patients were sleeping so I approached the lady by the window, introduced myself as the chaplain, and asked if she would like a chat.

As we began to talk the lady behind me awoke, clearly in some distress, but for that time my focus was on Mrs A in front of me. We continued to talk – despite the cries of “help me, help me” coming from behind – and she clearly appreciated the company. Then, after a short prayer, I said goodbye and turned to the lady behind me, Mrs J.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, she reprimanded, as she told me of her father who had been a Rector for many years. “He would never have ignored me like that”.

This did not bode well but I apologised and said that I had been speaking to Mrs A but was here for her now if she would like to talk.

For the next ten minutes I didn’t say a word as she opened up about the loss of her father, her husband’s dementia, her stroke which had robbed her of much of her sight, balance and independence. Even as the nurse came to change the bedsheet next to us I made a conscious effort to ignore her and kept my gaze locked on Mrs J.

After a while she apologised for taking up my time and asked if I would pray for her so I did and then left, amazed by the encounter and by the way her attitude towards me had completely changed without me saying a word.

As I first approached her I didn’t feel I had anything to offer, but in that moment what she really needed, and what I was able to give, was the gift of attention. The gift of another person’s undivided attention, that is truly a gift of grace.

Story for school assembly – Judas Iscariot

I go into one of our local schools on Wednesdays to lead Collective Worship (aka assemblies!), and at the moment we are looking at Jesus’ friends.  This week it is the turn of Judas Iscariot and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is really quite difficult to find good stories to read about Judas so rather than spend hours in fruitless searching I thought I’d just channel my inner Bob Hartman and write my own!

In  the ‘refrain’ when I say “Judas made a mistake”, the children will shout “Oh no!”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

He had been travelling with Jesus for 3 long years and for 3 long years he had watched as Jesus had spent time with people who were poor, and homeless, and sick, instead of people who were rich and powerful and important.

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

Because he got fed up of waiting. Jesus was his friend but he wanted more important friends. Friends who were rich and powerful. Friends like the Pharisees.

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

He knew that the Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he went to talk to them anyway. They told him that they’d give him lots of money if he told them where they could find Jesus.

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

Because that evening, after he’d had dinner with Jesus and his friends and found out where they were going later he slipped out of the room and went to find the Pharisees.

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

The Pharisees gave him a big bag of money and Judas led them to the garden where Jesus and his friends were sitting. Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss but then he watched in horror as the Pharisees arrested Jesus!

Judas had made a mistake Oh no!
Judas had made a big mistake

He hadn’t meant for his friend to be arrested but it was too late now. Too late to stop it, the Pharisees had already taken Jesus off to prison. He tried to give them the money back, he tried to undo the damage but it was too late.

Judas had made a mistake Oh no!
Judas had made a big mistake

But that wasn’t his biggest mistake. Because Judas couldn’t see how Jesus, his friend, could ever forgive him. And so he never asked, he never said sorry.

But if he had asked, if he had said sorry, Jesus would have forgiven him, just like he forgave his other friends who ran away in fear when Jesus was arrested, just like he forgave Peter who told people that he didn’t even know Jesus because he was scared they’d arrest him too.

Judas made a mistake Oh no!
Judas made a big mistake

Judas didn’t think his friend would forgive him and because of that he is known as “Judas the traitor” when he could have been known as “Judas the forgiven”.

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Prayer

We thank you Jesus that you are our friend, and that when we make mistakes we can always say sorry and you will always forgive us.

Help us to say sorry to our friends when we make mistakes and to forgive them when they let us down.

Amen

#SourdoughSeptember Day 24

This is a classic story which I have heard in different forms from several different sources.  It is often (but by no means always!) called a Sufi Wisdom Story. Wherever it is from it’s a great tale and this is my take on it.

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The Greedy Baker

In a corner of the old market, squeezed in between the fabric sellers and the spice merchants, you will find a tiny bakery.  This bakery isn’t much to look at, especially in comparison with its more colourful neighbors, and inside there is barely room to swing a baguette but it does have one unique selling point.  Read the rest of this entry

Palm Sunday – a retelling

Last week our pastoral group led the Thursday evening communion service at college and we explored how Jesus subverted the expectations people had of what the Messiah would do.  One of the ways we did this was by retelling three of the stories from Holy week to show how people might have expected Jesus to act.  The idea was partially inspired by The Orthodox Heretic by Pete Rollins.  I rewrote the Palm Sunday story, based on Matthew 21:1-9

~ ~ ~

As he approached Jerusalem the Messiah sent two of his servants ahead, saying “Go into the town ahead of you and you will find a royal chariot and a pair of fine stallions. You will bring them to me. If anyone questions your intentions, you know what to do.”

This took place to fulfil what had been written:
He who would conquer worlds must come with power,
With chariot and horse comes victory’s hour”

The servants did as the Messiah ordered. They brought the chariot and polished it until it gleamed like the midday sun. A large crowd was summoned from the city and were ordered to line the route with their cloaks. They were then ordered to cut down the branches from the trees, which would ordinarily have provided them with shade, to fan the Messiah as he passed.

The crowds, led by the Messiah’s guards, were chanting:
See, the glorious hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
Have no mercy, mighty king
victorious one, all conquering!

The old instrument maker

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Many years ago, in the back streets of Venice, hidden amongst the canals and the alleyways, there was a small workshop. In this workshop, surrounded by tools and wood and dust there lived an old instrument maker. He was very talented and made a whole range of instruments. There were cellos and violins, clarinets and trombones, all intricately designed and beautifully made. The thing that really made these instruments special though, was the magic that he breathed into them when they were finished. The magic which brought these instruments to life.

As soon as the instruments realised that they were alive, however, they started to admire themselves.
“Look at my beautifully carved neck” cried the viola
“And see my wonderfully polished tubes” said the trumpet, “see how they shine like the midday sun!”

Before long people gathered to marvel at these amazing instruments. They were captivated by their beauty and their charming behaviour. They became renowned throughout the world as the most astonishing instruments ever made. There were books written about them and the best artists of the day produced fine paintings capturing their every curve in exquisite detail.

But back in his workshop the old instrument maker’s heart was breaking, for he hadn’t poured all of his love and care and skill into these instruments just so that they would be admired. Rather he had created them so that they in turn would create beautiful music. So the old instrument maker came up with a plan.

He sent out his son, a talented musician, to gather together all of his instruments so that he could explain his original purposes to them. Eventually they were all gathered together in the old workshop and, once the chatter had ceased and the complaints about the dust and dirt had died down, the old instrument maker began to speak.

“I created every one of you, I poured my heart and soul into your design. I know every detail of every single one of you. From the etchings on your back, violin my friend, to the small nick inside your bell that you try so hard to hide young oboe. I am proud of you and delight in you but I am also disappointed in you. For I did not create you to be admired, or to boast and argue about your unique designs. I created you for a far greater purpose, to be played, to enable other people to create glorious music. I will not force this upon you, but I wanted you to know this. If you are willing my son is a talented musician and is able to truly bring you to life.”

The instruments gathered together to discuss this but very soon they began to complain.
“Let other people touch us? no thanks”
“Have someone put their grubby fingers all over my beautiful strings? I don’t think so”
“We are perfect already, why would we want to change anything?”
On and on it went, until suddenly a small voice called out; “I’ll do it”.

It was a little penny whistle who had been quietly standing at the back. He was not intricately designed, he was a bit chipped and rough around the edges, and none of the others had even noticed that he was there. As the little penny whistle stepped forward the old instrument maker looked at him with such love and compassion that the little penny whistle began to cry. His tears stained the wood and made him look even more messy. The little penny whistle went up the the old instrument maker’s son and the son picked him up, put him to his lips and began to play.

He began quietly, testing the range of the little penny whistle but before long the melody began to soar. As the old instrument maker’s son played on people outside stopped to listen to the little penny whistle. In that moment, as the son’s breath flowed through it’s body, the little penny whistle was more perfect, more complete, more beautiful and more truly alive than the other instruments could ever dream of being.