Restore my soul

This song began life as a result of a mountain top (for want of a better word) rant at God. I had been feeling pretty low for some time and needed to vent some frustration at him which, I can imagine you thinking, was a bit arrogant and disrespectful. But I think there are enough Psalms and other parts of Scripture which show this to be something that God understands and, perhaps, even encourages if it means we are being honest with him. I believe he blesses such openness and does respond with grace and mercy. That was certainly true in my case as he put my grievances in perspective and reminded me of his unfailing and steadfast love and compassion for me, despite all my failures and inadequacies.

So, as Psalm 23 explains, he will restore our souls … if we but ask …

When there’s darkness all around,
when I walk on stony ground,
when upon my knees I fall

and I make that final call ...

Lord, restore my soul.
Lord, restore my soul.
Restore my soul.

When I feel so very tired,
when my worship’s uninspired,
when I lose my sight of you

and I doubt the things you do ...

Lord, restore my soul ...

When I long for heaven’s rest,
when I think I’ve done my best,
when there’s more you ask from me

and I cry, “O, let me be!” ...

Lord, restore my soul
...

(c) 2020 Graham Oakes

Out there, somewhere …

About 28 years ago we went through a family experience that everyone dreads. Our youngest son (aged 2) was missing, on a dark, cold winter’s night.

It was two weeks before we were due to fly home on UK leave and Gail and I were attending a rare hospital meal at the restaurant. We had just ordered when I was called to a phone, someone was asking for me. It was about 7:30 pm.

The phone call was from our babysitter. She nervously explained that Gethin was ‘missing’. She had heard the back door and found it was open. She searched the house. She searched outside and called his name but couldn’t see or hear him. This was when she decided to call and tell me what had happened

My first response was to disbelieve her although I soon realised that she was extremely concerned, not to mention embarrassed. I told her that I would come home straight away.

I went back to the table and told Gail that I was going home for a bit and that I would be back soon.

When I arrived home I searched the house. I also went outside and called Gethin’s name. At this point Ceryn, aged 8 came home from Cubs and became very upset when she realized what was happening. She started calling his name as well. I wondered if he might have followed us down the hill to the harbour although of course he would never have caught up with us. He didn’t like letting Gail out of his sight. My fear, however, was that he had headed in the opposite direction where there was rough ground and ice covered ponds.

I knocked on our neighbour’s door and asked if they had seen him. She said she hadn’t but lent me a torch. I carried on looking and she, unknown to me, called her husband who was training with the FIDF (Falkland Islands Defence Force). She also informed the Police. Still not finding him I decided that I had better go and tell Gail.

So, now both of us were leaving the party to quizzical looks from our hospital friends who didn’t have a clue what was going on. Later we found out that the mystery deepened for them when the Chief of Police, who was also there for a meal, got bleeped and rushed out and they saw vehicles, with blue lights flashing, racing by on the harbour road. Why hadn’t they been called as well they wondered.

Gail was obviously very upset when she understood the situation. As we got to the top of the hill we saw dozens of people around the house, some in uniform. The Police and the FIDF had turned up along with many locals as it had been announced on the local news service that a little boy was missing.

I spoke to the Detective in charge, who of course we knew, and he confirmed that he had searched the house so now they were looking in neighbours’ gardens their out-buildings and underneath those newer houses which were built on stilts. Time was going on and still no sign of him.

Some of our close friends, including the vicar and his wife, had turned up in support and we were in our kitchen just waiting for news. I was very worried and Gail was frantic. I hardly believed that he would have survived after being outside for a couple of hours. I decided to pray, out loud, that God would keep him close to himself, wherever he was. It was a prayer of faith in God’s abiding love more than a prayer for his safe return …

Gail had been out shouting his name too but returned too upset to speak and left the kitchen to go into his bedroom. She lay down on his bed and reached for one of his cuddly toys. I had walked with her to the bedroom but thought it better to leave her alone for that moment so I walked back to the kitchen. I’d only taken a few steps when I heard her scream and thought she’d finally broken down. But she was shouting, “He’s here! He’s here!”

Disbelief!

She came out with tears streaming down her face to tell us all that she had touched his head and found that he was down between the side of the bed and the wall! What a relief!

How do you define a miracle?

This was a happy ending but it had been a really traumatic couple of hours.

It was gone 9pm and I had to go and tell the Detective that we had found him. He asked me where and how. I told him. He too found it hard to believe … then he shouted to everyone to stand down because the boy had been found. He didn’t say where …

Only after the event did we realize what a tremendous effort had been made by everyone in this small community to reach out and help. We also learned that the military were on the verge of scrambling a helicopter.

The next day I rang the FIDF and Police to thank them for what they had done only to be thanked by them for the best exercise they had had for a long time! They said they had learned so much about searching for missing people.

I think I learned a lot from that episode too but that’s another story …

I also contacted the local Broadcasting Station to say thank you to the community for their help and support. This was the song I dedicated to them. And I thought that, on this Father’s Day, I’d share it with you:

This version is sung by Father and Daughter duo Mat and Savannah Shaw (who have only been singing on Youtube since the start of the Pandemic) and is a beautiful example of a father sharing a moment with one of his children … so, in memory of one of our moments here’s “Somewhere, out there …”

And Peace be upon you …

Crushed, beneath the tyrannical force of those sworn to keep it, 
Peace dies in the street without mercy or consideration of its gasps for help.

Onlookers, powerless to intervene, are warned off and resort to recording, 
for the world, this abhorrence. 

A world, saturated with gratuitous and visual violence, is enraged …

The agonised frustrations of a people consumed with the desire to be free 
from a slavery, not abolished in practice, and still suffered in sight of privilege 
and prejudice, are unleashed …

The pattern is not new.

It repeats the sad reflection on the state of this fragile human union.
‘… One nation,
under God,
indivisible,
with liberty
and justice
for all”
Fluttering with certain irony, the flag, before which this oath is made daily, 
must look down with shame on the way truth is denied, in the streets, 
within government, in the minds, hearts and souls of an entire country, 
of the wider world…

The self-evident founding assertion that,
‘… all men are created equal …’
condemns every act perpetrated by all bigots and supremacists who use 
the Constitution for their own selfish ends, with no regard for those whom 
it was created to protect.

With deepening dismay, we see injustice and hate overflow; protests are deflected 
and defeated by weak political resolve and there is no public figure brave enough 
to articulate and spearhead the national revolution required.

This is a fuse which is getting shorter by the moment with political expediency 
and personal ambition about to blow nations apart.

But, an older constitution exists.

Though forgotten by many, it founded and formed much of 
western civilisation and law.
Written in stone, revealed in flesh and blood, it takes love for God 
and for humanity seriously, to the point of self-sacrifice and self-denial.

With all our technological progress and social media prowess this message is 
being lost, diluted and replaced by the unfiltered expressions of human emotion, 
untethered by restraint and concern for consequence and responsibility.

Can we return to that simpler way of life ruled by the discipline of spirit where words 
are not used lightly or to wound; 
where minds are subject to the control of reflection and long-term hope?

Where our neighbour is worthy of respect and care, whoever they are?

Where we recognise, when observing failed humanity, that 
‘... there but for the grace of God’?
For, it is by grace that we are saved, not of anything we are or can do.

We all stand, equally condemned before the throne of God and no number of Bibles
on our shelves or in our hands can give us immunity from the inevitable judgement.

Presidents, Kings, Popes and Archbishops, World Leaders, Governments, Religions,
Criminal & Terrorist organisations … every one of us … must bow before a bloodied
and executed outcast who died as Prince of Peace and now reigns as King of Love.

We must see ourselves for who we really are and recognise him for who he really is.
“Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.
Turn me around, let me face you and learn humility.
Fill me with your presence and make me clean.
Take my thoughts, words and actions and make them yours.
Take my memories and shame and forgive and redeem my past 
that I may live renewed in your present.
Grow your Spirit’s fruit and gifts in me for the blessing of others, 
for peace – and your glory.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, 
your Son and my Saviour. 

Amen”

The Unexpected Visit

They arrived unannounced. It was not the best of times and we were in a mess. A lot to do, to think about. It was a fearful time and violence was in the air. We did not feel safe and any knock on the door could be the last …

We were here in obedience to the government’s edict but the powers that be were not on our side. We would not be afforded any special protection for being obedient to one set of rules if we were found to be guilty of another – even if the evidence was circumstantial.

The strangers hurried in and immediately I could sense something was not right. For one thing they weren’t locals. Their language and dress appeared eastern. What few words they spoke were difficult to understand – they seemed to prefer gestures; bowing and clapping in the main. It looked like some sort of happy adoration which I thought a contradiction but which they were completely at ease with.

The baby was awake and giggling at all this attention which only seemed to encourage them – and then they unpacked their gifts.

Nothing, apart from the birth of our son, could compare with what was revealed in our presence.

The purest gold, glinting in the semi-darkness, being offered by an aged, trembling hand and then laid at the baby’s feet. A moment’s silence as the visitors bowed low in reverence as if before a king.

Then, the unmistakable aroma of such a fragrance that sweetened the atmosphere – overcoming the smells of the travellers’ long and arid journey. One of them anointed the baby with some of the frankincense and then they all hummed some sort of lullaby or perhaps it was a prayer …

The last gift was similar but offered in silence and some sadness.

Myrrh, from the rich flow of a wounded thorn tree. It suggests pain and sorrow but brings comfort through its salving application. The silence continued for some time … even the baby made no sound.

Eventually,the visitors rose and prepared to leave as quickly as they had arrived. I saw them to the door wondering whether, and how, to thank them. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps we should ask if they would take us with them – escaping the fears of this place – but they left too quickly for me to suggest it. My fears were confirmed however when, later that night, I awoke with the intense compulsion to gather my family together and leave immediately …

So, once again, we became travellers, refugees from terror; carrying only what we had just been given.

Poor and despised in the minds of the rich and powerful we may have been – but we were confident that what we had was the most precious gift the world had never seen.

That new and brighter day


Read by Ceryn Hopla

What was I supposed to think?

Even in the dark I could see
the stone had been moved
and I screamed at this latest
desecration of his memory.
 
“They’ve taken him
and I don’t know where.
Do something!”
 
They ran to the tomb.
Yes: it was empty!
Yes: the grave clothes
were still there

Yes: our Lord’s body was gone!
 
The men returned to the house –
fearing what this might mean.
 
I stayed with my grief …
 
Dawn was breaking,
but this was a different light …
coming from the tomb itself.
 
Through my tears,
I saw two people,
sitting, in radiant peace,
where his blood-stained
body had been laid.
 
“What do you mean why am I crying???”
 
Outside, the gardener
asked me the same question,
 
“Who are you looking for?”, he said.
 
“Just tell me where he is!”
 
All my frustrations and fears
combined in this one question.
 
Who was I looking for?
 
Jesus!
 
The one who had changed my life.
 
I’d heard him speak such words –
watched as he’d healed the sick,
and raised the dead …
He’d promised a lot,
but, perhaps, expected too much …
 
He talked of a Kingdom in which
Peace and Love were the rule …
He inspired and excited us;
we were encouraged to love God –
and one another – without sin.
 
But then he died!
 
And with him all his promises vanished like the morning dew …
 
This world is too empty now.
Nothing matters any more.
 
None of us can replace him
and without him, we can’t be
what he wanted us to be …
 
“Please, sir, tell me where he is.”
 
Just to see his broken body
once more;
just to anoint him, one more time.
 
Then,
as if I was being stirred
from the deepest sleep,
I heard him gently speak my name –
 
and that’s when I awoke
to a newer, brighter day!

 

 

 

Based on John 20
© 2018 Graham Oakes

A Christmas Story: Once upon a hillside …

It was over thirty years ago but I still remember that night so well. I was ten years old and proud of it. I tried very hard to hold my own with the others who did not always take kindly to my age or relative innocence. As long as I did my job then they were friendly enough but there were often times when they would be rough and make me cry. Eventually one of the group would make them stop and I would feel ashamed that I hadn’t been able to hold out longer.

Then there were the practical jokes at my expense which sometimes made me very afraid but caused them great hilarity and again I would feel annoyed that I had once more fallen for their clever scheme.

Usually, when I was feeling upset, lonely, or annoyed I would go off on my own and sit with my favourite lamb and tell it all my woes. I was happy to think that it always understood and sympathised with me, being the younger victim. Feeling its warm heartbeat under the cold, clear, starlit sky was the next best thing to my mother’s hug. I felt safe and loved. Here, I could fall asleep and dream of being a man – and planning my own practical jokes.

It was on one such night that it happened. Suddenly, there was shouting and screaming coming from the other shepherds and a bright light shining amongst the rocks and trees.

“Not again”, I thought, “what are they cooking up this time?”

But there was something different about this. Perhaps it was the way they were screaming or something about the light which was very unusual. I suddenly became afraid because I thought we were being attacked by those filthy, cruel Roman soldiers or even sheep robbers. This might be my last ever night on earth.

I got up and slowly made my way to where the rest had been sleeping. They weren’t sleeping any more. Instead, they were all on their knees or lying face down on the ground. Most were shaking and some were crying for mercy. I must admit, I did find this funny and was a bit glad that they were getting a taste of their own medicine. But what was it that was causing them to fear like this?

The light seemed to be coming from just above the hill but it was so bright that I couldn’t look directly at it. It was as if a small sun was shining but without any of the heat. I had never seen anything like this before. Then, just as incredible, a voice started to speak. I say a voice but it was like nothing I had heard before. It wasn’t just the sound, which seemed like a mixture of all the voices I had ever heard, but it was the way the ground trembled as the words came out. A bit like an earthquake …

“Do not be afraid”, it said.

This didn’t help – as nothing so far made any of us feel anything less than very afraid.

Then, the source of the voice moved forward out of the light. A shimmering being in pure white but tinged with gold, just like my lamb’s wool shines in the sunrise. The only way I can explain it is that the light seemed to ripple out just like water does when you throw a pebble in a pool. And the light itself seemed to split into colours but you couldn’t name them and as soon as you focused on one it would change. What trickery was this? Something way beyond our practical jokers, the Romans and even sheep stealers!

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people”.

Well, ‘Good news’ … that was interesting. We hadn’t heard any good news for ages, and none that would bring great joy to everyone! This wasn’t a Roman thing.

Some of the shepherds began to lift their heads and get off their knees and sit down together in a huddle till only Reuben stayed face down, sobbing and shaking.

The voice went on,

“Today, in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

This was a lot to take in but before I could really understand what was being said the whole sky lit up with a thousand bright lights. It was as if the stars had fallen from the sky and gathered all around us … much bigger and brighter than when they were high up above. And then there was some kind of music … but nothing like we make ourselves with flutes and harps. This was something else. Instead of just hearing it all my senses seemed to be affected. It was like the warm summer breeze, the song of birds and bleat of lambs, the lapping of water on the lake shore, the smell of Spring and Summer. It made me think of the most beautiful sunset and the soft rain that blesses the parched ground. It must have been the song of Creation which, for some reason we were able to hear … then all these stars said and sang together:

“Glory to God
in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace
to those on whom
his favour rests”

We were hearing the name of God in a field, on a mountain; not in a cold, stone temple and not by priests. None of us had much time for religion – raw nature was enough for us. But here, nature itself seemed to be responding to the heavenly spectacle. I had a sense deep inside that this was true worship. These angels, for that is what they must have been, were, for some reason, telling us of a great event to do with a baby. The Messiah was mentioned although being in a Manger still didn’t make much sense … but they obviously wanted us to be part of what was going on.

Just as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone.

Once our eyes got accustomed to the dark again we started talking about what had happened. Most agreed that we should go down to Bethlehem and see for ourselves. All except Reuben who was still lying face down, still shaking – but, once he realised he’d be left behind alone he soon got up and followed us.

What can I say about that visit to the back of the Inn?

We made our way through the crowded, noisy streets. So many people none of whom seemed to have been aware of what we had just seen. They were carrying on as normal, (for census time), trying to make the best of it either by getting drunk or finding long-lost friends to moan and complain with – and yes, then get drunk.

Finally, we’re weren’t sure how, we found them in a relatively quiet part of town. Sure enough, there was a baby.  There was a man and a young woman who were obviously the parents. The man looking nervous and the mother looking lovingly at her baby … in the manger! We had arrived, unannounced, unprepared and certainly unkempt at a most intimate and innocent scene. We didn’t know it then but Herod’s soldiers would soon be searching for this baby and many others would be slaughtered on his orders. But this baby, this little lamb, would survive that night … and I was glad that I had been given the chance to be there because, for once, us shepherds were trusted with something the rest of the world didn’t know. Was it because we were used to caring for vulnerable sheep? Was it because we knew the importance of a good, safe birth and the nurturing of new life? Was it because we didn’t know how to argue away what we’d seen and so just believed and followed – like our sheep? Or was it because we’d seen the angels – and had heard for ourselves the music of heaven?

Reuben was the last to come in but he quickly made his way to the front and when he saw the baby in the manger fell flat on his face again! But this time there were sounds of joy coming from him and then he started laughing. So embarrassing! But the mother turned to him and smiled and I swear that even the baby started chuckling … there was this joy which touched us all. Reuben got up and led us out into the cold night air still with an open smile on his face and he stopped everyone he met and told them about what had just happened and what we’d seen and heard. He was very keen to tell them that he had seen the Messiah and that God’s Kingdom was coming. Some would ask us if he was crazy but we happily confirmed that we had seen and heard these things too.

Back on the hillside it took us a while to settle down. The stars would never look the same again and I felt that there was nothing that could frighten me anymore. I had seen the baby Messiah. I didn’t fully understand what that meant but it could only be good; very, very good. I found my lamb and lay down, watching the stars and wondering if there would be any other surprises. But that seemed to be it.

Then, about three years ago a Rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth appeared and went around talking about the Kingdom of God. There were claims that he healed people and had even raised a few from the dead. Some called him a heretic, a zealot or mad. But a few seemed to think he was the Messiah come to save us from Roman rule … was this the baby in the manger all grown up?

And now, here I am in Jerusalem. I’ve brought my best lamb to offer as sacrifice for my family to share in the Passover. There’s a rumour going around that this Jesus, of Nazareth, is to be crucified for upsetting the High Priest and threatening Rome itself.

It’s all very strange … did I first see him in a manger? Now he’s going to hang on a cross! What sort of Messiah does any of that? But then, how many of us have angels announcing our birth? If he’s wrong then the crucifixion won’t change anything … but, if he really is the promised One …

I think I’ll stay for a little while longer and see if any angels turn up …

3rd Sunday in Advent: Angels abounding …

Gabriel:

From the spectral hues of heaven
you transcend the boundary
between creation and Creator.

Shimmering like the rainbow,
you appear in our shaded sphere;
shaking our sense of safe, familiar
but broken beauty.

Your unearthly presence spans
time and eternity,
finite and infinite,
beginning and end.

With you there is
no prejudice,
no judgement,
no bias,
no spin.

Your mission:
to speak with words
of Divine truth
into the chaos
of our humanity …

To Daniel,
you foretold
the Anointed One’s sacrifice.

To Zechariah
you conveyed good news
promising new life;
leaving him
in the silence
of his disbelief.

And so, to Mary!

Surely, Gabriel,
this was a conversation
like no other.

Between those singular lines
of humble acceptance
you studied and interpreted
her silence
and understood her heart;
a new Eve, obedient and true.

Familiar as you are
with the glory and nature
of heaven,
you would wonder at this:

the kindling of Salvation
and the birth of Grace!

Returning
to the realms of mystery
you bore the answer
to Eden’s question,
“Where are you?”

And so,
Heaven overflows
in ecstatic praise:

“God Incarnate: Love’s great plan!
Joy to the world and Peace to Man!”