We looked at Ruth and Naomi yesterday: ordinary, decent women who encountered an ordinary, decent man in Boaz; and the rest is history. That story must have been going through the back of my mind, because my eyes were open to an embodiment of ordinary decency as I saw her pushing her walking aid up the hill towards her parish church.
Margaret stopped to chat to three different acquaintances within 200 metres, in my case just a quick greeting as she was already in conversation with someone else. On other occasions she will be walking Basil her Maltese terrier, or giving him a ride on the trolley; or else sitting outside her favourite cafe on the square with a long coffee and a short cigarette, chatting to any who pass by.
There is a ministry of friendliness which doesn’t exactly fit the Gospel accounts of the Works of Mercy, but has elements of several of them. I can imagine Margaret saying: Lord, when did I see thee and befriend thee?
And the Lord could play back a few scenes from her life and say to her: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. And upon such rocks I will build my Church.
Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee?Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?
And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.
We should not pass over those all-but invisible, non-charismatic, ministers of the Good News who bring it to people without preaching; who can say ‘I love you, God loves you’ without those words coming anywhere near their lips. And by no means all of them have any church affiliation at all. Let us thank God for them.
If you are a pet owner, then you know how many plastic toys you go through. So, why not invest in some plastic-free ones? Also, having a ceramic bowl can be a better alternative to a flimsy plastic one.
George Borrow is walking through Wales in November 1854, and does not regard an umbrella as something expendable, to be thrown out when one or two struts have broken! No Bibles for sale this time, but he’s as full of himself as ever. Enjoy his bombast! But we could remind him of Psalm 17:8, ‘Keep me as the apple of thy eye. Protect me under the shadow of thy wings.’ Even when the rain is in your face, the Lord will protect you. If you allow him to.
Rain came on, but it was at my back, so I expanded my umbrella, flung it over my shoulder and laughed. O, how a man laughs who has a good umbrella when he has the rain at his back, aye and over his head too, and at all times when it rains except when the rain is in his face, when the umbrella is not of much service. O, what a good friend to a man is an umbrella in rain time, and likewise at many other times. What need he fear if a wild bull or a ferocious dog attacks him, provided he has a good umbrella? he unfurls the umbrella in the face of the bull or dog, and the brute turns round quite scared, and runs away. Or if a footpad asks him for his money, what need he care provided he has an umbrella? he threatens to dodge the ferrule into the ruffian’s eye, and the fellow starts back and says, “Lord, sir! I meant no harm. I never saw you before in all my life. I merely meant a little fun.” Moreover, who doubts that you are a respectable character provided you have an umbrella? you go into a public-house and call for a pot of beer, and the publican puts it down before you with one hand without holding out the other for the money, for he sees that you have an umbrella and consequently property. And what respectable man, when you overtake him on the way and speak to him, will refuse to hold conversation with you, provided you have an umbrella? No one. The respectable man sees you have an umbrella and concludes that you do not intend to rob him, and with justice, for robbers never carry umbrellas. O, a tent, a shield, a lance and a voucher for character is an umbrella. Amongst the very best friends of man must be reckoned an umbrella.
It’s about time we sat back to listen to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who knows how to tell a story afresh, with help from Alfie the Collie.
Even the puppies eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table (Mt.15:27).
I think it would be wonderful to be irresistible to Jesus, to surprise him by getting something really right, make him do a double-take and ask, ‘Did she just say that?’ It rarely happens in the gospels, but there are a few instances of it. And one of them is recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.
Jesus and his disciples are travelling, on foot, as usual. They are in the region of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile area. A Canaanite woman, gentile therefore, turns up. And she starts shouting at the top of her lungs, calling to Jesus. At first, her talent seems to lie chiefly in making a pest of herself – at least as far as the disciples are concerned, for they urge Jesus to give her what she wants, ‘…because she keeps shouting after us.’ We know the type, and cringe. The woman is pushy–in the extreme: she’s noisy, her voice probably harsh and grating, she’s insistent, she won’t be brushed off. She shouts out two titles to grab Jesus’ attention (maybe one will work): ‘Lord! Son of David!’ Then ‘…take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ Over and over, apparently.
And Jesus seems to be ignoring her. Even after reading this story many, many times over the years, I still feel a jolt at Jesus seeming to blank this woman. Why does he do it? I think Jesus himself answers that question when he says to the disciples, ‘But I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ To my mind, what Jesus is saying here is that he is not sure whether the woman would have the capacity to receive what he could give her. Her religious background was unknown; at least the lost sheep of the House of Israel would have the religious sensibility to understand Jesus’ message–or they would in theory, anyway. The gentiles would largely need a different approach. How much would this woman be able to grasp of Jesus’ teaching and his person? I think Jesus’ uncertainty is real. But he will soon have an answer to his question.
The woman overhears what Jesus says, and she has the pluck to come right up to him and show him what she is able to understand. First, she again appeals to his compassion: ‘Lord, help me.’ By this time, whenever I read the story, I am always on her side, pest or no pest, and I really don’t want Jesus to say what he says next, but there’s no help for it. He says: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.’ Scholarly exegesis is always quick to point out that Jesus isn’t insulting her; not really. In that culture and at that time, the word for puppies or little dogs softens an expression which itself was a conventional one devoid of the sting we would read into it. It was standard for Jews to refer to gentiles as dogs, evidently. With all our sensitivities today, it is still hard for us not to be taken aback, but it’s possible to imagine Jesus with a kindly expression in his eyes as he refers to the ‘little dogs’ or ‘puppies.’ And, the fact is, the Canaanite woman doesn’t object to it. In fact, she revels in it. It is exactly the handle she needs to hoist herself up in Jesus’ estimation – by a mile. Her life is about to become a lot better.
She has come to Jesus with absolutely no claims and no pretensions. She does not try to be what she isn’t; she isn’t a child of Israel, and she expects to be called a little dog. At the same time, she knows what she knows about Jesus, and she is certain that Jesus has supernatural power capable of healing her daughter. She is determined to obtain her daughter’s healing from him. So she is ready for him. To Jesus’ comment about not wanting to throw the children’s food to the puppies, she makes the brilliant and faith-filled rejoinder: ‘Ah, yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.’
Suddenly this pest is transformed into a paragon of everything Jesus wants to see in us. She is loving. She is straightforward about herself. She is full of faith with regard to Jesus. She is brave, truthful, frank, plucky and, as a bonus, ingeniously witty. This combination is irresistible to him. She understands all right, probably a lot better than some of the lost sheep of Israel do, and is fully able to receive the gift that Jesus is able to give. ‘Woman, you have great faith!’ he exclaims. ‘Let your desire be granted!’ And surely, this was said with an amazed smile and even a laugh on Jesus’ part. She must have filled Jesus with such joy, even as she herself was filled with joy by Jesus.
I said at the beginning that I’d like to be irresistible to Jesus, surprising him by the strength of my faith. This story makes me question some attitudes I have. Would I be as plucky as the Canaanite woman? She knew that as a gentile, she was not entitled to Jesus’ gift, but she was willing to receive any scrap from him that she could scavenge, and knew that such a scrap would be filled with his mighty power. How do I measure up against her willingness and faith? Against her perseverance in prayer? Don’t I tend to grow discouraged? Don’t I bring a subtle attitude of entitlement to prayer? I am not entitled to Jesus’ gift of friendship, healing and eternal salvation any more that she was. When Jesus seems to ignore my prayer, when he seems silent, don’t I feel just a bit put out? A little bit of entitlement is not much better than a lot of it. Perhaps by meditating on this Canaanite woman I may learn from her the attitudes that Jesus finds irresistible, and then find that we are cooperating in joy.
T wished Greta a good evening and went to round up the parrot hunters. Before he knew it he was face-to-face with a rather overweight police sergeant who was walking sedately through the park. T saw the official look descend over the lawman’s face and felt sure the doglets were being a nuisance to some poor creature. He recognised the sergeant, a former pupil of his friend Will Turnstone, so seized the initiative.
‘Callum, good to see you. How’s life in the force? Am I allowed to stand and chat with you?’‘
Callum had heard that conversational gambit more than a few times. ‘Come on Mr T, you should have those creatures under control. That woman in the red coat says they were chasing squirrels.’
‘And did they ever catch one? They just keep the squirrel population in training.’‘ Well, she can see I’ve had a word with you, but call them in, please.’
T called the boys in English and flashed his urgent call in Ossyrian telepathy. ‘If you don’t want to end up in the stray dogs’ home, you’d best get over here.’ They came.
‘Thanks Mr T,’ said the sergeant. ‘Beware of little old ladies who bring peanuts for the squirrels. She knows she shouldn’t do it but there’s no arguing with her. Good bye and enjoy your walk!’
They watched him plod on. ‘If you two are having fun, can you not keep half an eye out for trouble?’ T complained.
‘We minded your bag while you were in the pool. You should keep watch for us when we are chasing squirrels.’
T felt there was something lacking in Ajax’s logic, but the exhilaration in their bearing suggested that they had gained as much from their noisy run around as he had from his quiet swim. Such joys were available virtually in Ossyria, but he had to admit that the earthly cool water and warm air were the real thing, the home version of total immersion now seemed somewhat lacking. True, Superstud Doggynutz were a poor substitute for the crunchy squirrel thighs the chihuahuas craved, but who has everything? Ossyrians were so sure that they did, but they could learn from crazy generous humans any day.
Downstairs in a pandemonium of claws then out into the spring sunshine. T had hardly noticed the weather, being absorbed in collating a report on Random Acts of Kindness between Earthly Species. The chihuahuas had contributed to the field-work, or rather park-work, that lay behind this thesis. They maintained, from a canine perspective, that when a dog looked at a human eye-to-eye, with tongue at half-mast in what some people called a smile, it was the dog initiating the exchange of kindness, not the human who scratched the dog between the ears or under the chin.
It was well drilled into the chihuahuas that they did not enter Peter’s Fish Factory. ‘After all’, said T, ‘You never went near the kitchen in Ossyria.’ ‘As if anyone ever would!’ retorted Alfie. ‘I never knew where they were, and I never wanted to.’ He broke off as T entered the shop, then turned to Ajax. ‘Well done, getting him out of the apartment. He’s spent too long on that report that will never be read. Even if it gets back to Ossyria, it will be suppressed. Random Acts of Kindness would upset the whole system. What’s the point of them in the best of all possible worlds?’
‘Best of all possible worlds? I don’t quite believe that any more.’ Ajax would have said more, but T had come out of Peter’s carrying a big paper bag with a blue fish printed on the side. ‘Beach steps or Winter Gardens?’ asked T. ‘Gardens’, came the reply. Aggressive, hungry gulls were intimidating to lowly chihuahuas, and there was more cover in the gardens. If necessary, a dog could hide under a bench, though not too close to another dog who might fancy the same morsel, or receive a larger whitebait.
The Ossyrian virtues of docility and self-sufficiency had worn thin during the trio’s extended stay on earth. Self-sufficiency, Alfie the Chihuahua reflected, was always an illusion. Back home he had stayed in his pod like a good citizen, accepting without complaint the ten day week’s rota of meals as they arrived through the serving hatch, but with little enthusiasm except on Ninthdays when there was a dish he could actually taste. He was reminded of this flavour when he ate a bagful of cheese and onion crisps, but he very soon realised that the crisps had more taste than ‘Welpow Pie’, and furthermore, that Cheddar cheese was much nicer than the crisps, if bad for a dog’s digestion. A sore tummy once in a while was a price worth paying for getting away from endless grey mush. Alfie, despite being no more than 5% of his Ossyrian stature and weight, was happier living as an earthly dog, even with that annoying Ajax.
Neither of them showed much docility towards the other, T felt. Before the Ossyrian apocalypse he had hunted and eaten many a mongoose-like creature. In a bad light he could almost imagine that a chihuahua was … but he would not let his mind wander too far down that alley, if only because they would read his thoughts.
‘I’m hungry. What about a walk to Peter’s Fish Factory, T?’ projected Ajax. T shuddered; that was a close call! Next time he felt murderous one of them might read his thoughts more clearly. But a walk along the beach promised to be a positive distraction from snarling and knocking into the furniture. ‘I must buy Mature Doggy Megabytz next time’, he promised himself.
We rejoin the alien chihuahuas and Mr T after quite a time when they were collecting data on humanity as seen in Margate, a seaside town in England.The covid lockdown is underway.
The chihuahuas were going cabin crazy, which was a sign of how the last three years had changed them from post-apocalyptic hermits on their home planet of Ossyria to hyperintelligent pseudocanines on Earth. The long Margate horizons, the ever changing sunsets, fish and chips and the joys of chasing the parrots that always got away; these had all got under their skins. A day in Margate, said Ajax, is better than a thousand on Ossyria.
But now they were stuck indoors most of the day due to the corvid19 outbreak. A bit too reminiscent of the latter days of Ossyria. Except that here there was an edge of uncertainty that did not trouble anyone in Ossyria, where life was almost eternal but safe in the pods and, looking back, very boring. Now the chihuahuas could feel the humans’ fear on the street. And neither they nor ‘T’, their director who was disguised as a human, knew how a transformed Ossyrian body would react to the virus if it came their way.
‘I could cut up my blue shirt and sew up some masks,’ said T who travelled around earth in human form but mostly stayed near Margate.
Alfie replied,‘No mask for me, thank you, T; I want to smell things as I go along, not have them drowned out by the smell of washing powder on the cloth.’ And Ajax agreed, or at least he said, ‘I was just going to say that!’ And they were soon rolling about the floor, snapping and snarling. T sighed. ‘No more Superstud Doggynutz for you two.’ An empty threat; the biscuits were delivered every fortnight with his groceries, which he now had to collect from the front doorstep while the driver kept his distance. It was pups’ play for the doglets to distract him when he was checking the shopping list spreadsheet.
It’s a short walk across the park to our sub post office at Saint Stephen’s, far preferable to the one in town, now that it has left its historic building for an upstairs counter in a stationery shop.
I came out with two books of Christmas stamps. The first week in November seems rather early for this, but they are rather lovely, and we do still post letters occasionally, so why not share something beautiful as well as the Christmas story?
We may even use these stamps well into next year; I know a nativity stamp on a letter always makes me pause before opening, whatever the time of year. I was feeling a little sheepish though, as I set out for home; it’s nowhere near Christmas yet in my mind’s eye, let alone my feelings. Not even Advent.
But then, crossing the road I nearly tripped over a lap dog, dressed in a Santa costume despite its ample fur coat. 1,000 times NO! Let the dog be a dog! Let Christmas be Christmas! Of course the animals, including the shepherds’ dog, belong in the story, the next chapter of the Creation story, and of course we should treasure and care for animals in our care, but a dog is a dog, a furry animal, not a living soft toy!
May the star and your angel lead you through Advent to Bethlehem and the manger!
Of course the dog came with the shepherds to see baby Jesus! Patrixbourne Church, Kent.
After our pilgrims’ canter through the book of Tobit, ending with Tobias and Sarah and the dog living happily ever after, here is a story about Jesus, a woman and a dog. I like to think, along with the master masons of Strasbourg Cathedral, that Jesus and his followers had a dog with them. Here he is a few months later, excluded from Saint Thomas’s moment of truth after thee resurrection.
Jesus was someone who went across the river, through the desert and over the mountains. And then again: over the mountains, through the desert, and across the river. Jesus walked everywhere, and one day he went across the border and came to Tyre.
A Canaanite woman there began shouting,
Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grieviously troubled by the devil. Who answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us: and he answering, said: I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel.
But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me. Who answering, said: It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs. And she said: Yea, Lord; for the pups also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.
Then Jesus answering, said to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt: and her daughter was cured from that hour. Matthew 15:22-27.
I think Jesus is teasing this woman – we don’t know her name but we can see that she knew about children, she knew about dogs, and she knew about Jesus.
And she will not be ignored!
Jesus does not send her away. He tests her as he teases her; by appealing to her sense of humour, he leads her to express her faith more clearly, running with the metaphor he challenges her with.
Let us ask God for the things we need, and for the things our family and friends need, and for a sense of our own littleness, as we pray: