From the Revd Alastair Bolt
Looking through a rather ancient railway magazine of 1955, I found a series of photographs of steam trains which were the prize entries of a photographic competition. The judges’ comment on one of the consolation prize winners was that it was ‘a fine atmospheric picture but the large expanse of empty sky was unfortunate, although unavoidable.’ As the picture is in the open hill country of the Pennines, I did wonder what the sky was supposed to be filled up with. Hot air balloons or low flying aircraft? Would filling the sky up with something make for a better picture? I understand a little of photographic composition, but the empty sky is, as the judges said “unavoidable”. I had the feeling that they somehow didn’t like the picture and would have preferred the applicant had taken a picture of somewhere else where there was less empty sky, perhaps in a tunnel!
God never criticises us for what is unavoidable. Jesus doesn’t criticise His disciples for not catching any fish nor for failing to take along enough food for 5000 people, or for Peter’s mother-in-law having a fever. In His prayer in John 17 v15, Jesus didn’t ask His Father to take the disciples out of the world. This world is ‘unavoidable’. Christians cannot go and live in ‘a different picture’ through some paradigm shift. Sometimes the view might not seem perfect, but it is how we travel through it which interests Jesus. In that magazine, the pictures were of trains, not of sky.
As I write this letter to you I am looking forward to next Sunday, which is Palm Sunday. The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is dramatic, colourful, and full of action. You can almost feel the Middle-Eastern sunshine and heat, the colour and dust, the shouting and that edgy sort of chaos which sits between a procession, a demonstration, a celebration and a riot. In the midst of it all, Jesus rides on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah puts it ‘triumphant and victorious but humble’. The donkey has a big part to play in this story, unlike the donkey in the Christmas story which doesn’t actually feature in the Bible! Donkeys crop up in all sorts of places in the Bible, usually in supporting roles. They seem to be part of God’s creation which He brings into His saving purpose whenever He chooses to. God’s created world, be that donkeys or anything else, is not just a background to, but the platform for, His revelation of Himself to us. The donkey on Palm Sunday is God’s beast, perfectly designed for the task and available at the right moment. In fact, Jesus rides into Jerusalem through a created landscape entirely designed by His Father, a creation which apart from sinful humans welcomes and obeys Him. The donkey is a solid, sweaty reminder of Jesus’ engagement with the real world, our world and, as those shouts of Hosanna proclaim, His world.
Clerical collars or as they are commonly known, dog-collars have been part of my life, or at least my neck, for decades past. Digging around in some drawers I came upon the dog collar I wore for many years. It is a massive circle of stiff white plastic, over an inch deep, and designed to fit right around my neck attached by 2 studs to a collarless shirt. It was big, uncomfortable and spectacularly visible! These days I wear a clerical shirt with a tiny slot at the front where a small strip of soft white plastic conveniently slides in. It is easy to wear. It is also far less conspicuous than the old one. I wonder if my way of doing discipleship has become easier, less uncomfortable but also less conspicuous. Palm Sunday is a wake-up call for disciples to stand out. We follow a Lord Who rides on a donkey, hardly inconspicuous.
With all good wishes,
Published at 15:31 on 25 March 2021