Sunday, December 25, 2011

23rd, 25th

He lay at peace in the grass, the warmth of his mother beside him.  He closed his eyes and let the last, scarlet light of the day play upon his eyelids.  The grass was cool, and the sun was warm.  He had had his fill today, skipping until he could hardly stand, splashing himself silly in the stream, running himself dry in the endless meadow.

She had watched him at play all day, and her own heart sang with his as she lay next to him now, a mother and child at rest.  She put her mouth to his ear, and told him she loved him in a voice soft and tender. 

He felt her voice at his ear, and he smiled inside, but he tried not to show it.  He opened his eyes with a lazy squint to the sun in the west.  It was crouching low behind the hills, and he felt something in his spirit humming in tune with the song of those last red rays.  That sun and that sky were up to something, and tonight that sun was setting with a secret.  He heard it speak, its voice musical and still and not unlike his mother’s. 

The stars have a surprise for you tonight.

I know, he said, and laid his head on the cool earth. 

The shepherd stood nearby, crook in hand, gazing at the same deep sun.  He, too, felt the strange, quiet hum in his heart, thrumming in harmony with the sunset.  He could almost hear it speak, but its voice was just beyond his hearing.  He turned his eyes to the sleeping lamb and its mother resting at his feet.  He wondered what dreams they may be having, what thoughts were at play in their spirits.  The air was different tonight, toying with the thought of a breeze, gusting gently with a whim.  It seemed to invite such wistful thinking.  He closed his eyes and let the air tug gently at his clothes, his hand gripped and resting on the crook that had belonged to his father.  

He couldn’t hear the sun the way the lamb at his feet could, but he also somehow knew.  A secret was in the air, and that setting sun knew more than she was telling.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Forty-first Day

The morning came, and the sun bleached the hills and the distant city in a white and holy light.  He raised his head from his pillowing forearm, put a hand to his waking eyes and rubbed the grit from their corners.  The air was bright and clean and filled his lungs with a vigour he had not felt in forty days.  He stood to his feet and stretched out his arms, yawned and coughed and stepped out into the glorious presence of day.  His eyes came to rest on the city in the sun, glistening white and waking, and he loved her.  

Hunger reappeared in his belly.  He placed his hand to his stomach and felt it tremble and growl.  As he took a step toward the mountain path, he glanced at the ground.  He saw something crisp and white across the path.  It looked as if it had risen up from the ground itself in the night, and he bent low to inspect it.

“What is it?”

He reached out and broke a thin, crispy piece from the sparse grass in which it lay.  He sniffed it, and placed it on his tongue.

“What is it,” he said, and smiled.

He sat down there on the path, and had breakfast for the first time in forty-one days.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

First Communion

He stroked his beard absently, and looked around the room.  It was small, and dimly lit, but full with people and warm with light.  Several sat at the table with him, several more were seated about the floor, others gathered against the walls.  Conversations were quiet, with some muted bursts of amiable laughter.  There was some sniffling, too.  A crooked smile, a hand on a shoulder, an embrace.  He felt the ease of camaraderie and companionship playing in tension with a feeling of expectation.  This was not just a casual gathering of friends.  The future was waiting outside their door, and no one was sure how to greet him.  Great pain had come, had taught them to expect more of it, but great hope had been born, too, and the future was a captivating and shivering thought.  He thought of Moses, and of Joshua.  Like the second great leader of the People of God, these people were waiting for his first charge of leadership.  He sighed at the thought.

He knew almost everyone there by name, and as he scanned the room a hundred stories came to mind.  Simon, the leper, or rather, the former leper, stood locked in an embrace with a former blind man; laughing or crying, he couldn’t tell.  Either way, it was a good hug.  He could see in his memory Jesus kissing the blind man’s eyes, holding the leper’s hands.  He recalled the way they looked at him, the way they held on to him.  He prayed for so pure a devotion as theirs.

In the corner stood one of several Marys.  She smiled casually, incidentally, with the person with whom she was conversing, and he felt a sweet stab of joy in his throat.  Her eyes were so clear, so full to the brim with life.  He remembered those eyes when he had first seen them, shadowed with demons and shame.  That the woman he first met, such a short time ago, was the same woman he saw now was an overwhelming and joyous incongruity.  She still bore her scars, still walked with a metaphorical limp — but she walked, and sometimes danced.

She was speaking with a round, stout man who looked thoughtfully at the lady standing above him.  Peter tended to forget just how short Zacchaeus really was.  The little man they had found tree climbing had become a close friend of the band of disciples, offering food, lodging, and an exuberant hospitality.  Of course, there were times when that zeal was quite tiring to the people around him.  Earlier that very evening, Peter had sent him on an errand for bread just to have a moment of peace.  But it was good and right that the tax collector stood with them now.  He seemed taller than the man they’d seen in the tree.

Another tax collector sat two places down from him, on his left.  When Matthew asked him to pass the salt, Peter felt a tide rise in his eyes.  He laughed inside at the memory of the drunk he’d first met.  He remembered the tax collector, desperately lonely and physically sick, leaving his booth, dribbling vomit down his beard, crying in the arms of Jesus.  This, of course, brought to mind his own tearful, blubbering, first encounter with his friend and saviour, and as tears fell, he passed the salt.  Matthew smiled.  He knew what Peter's eyes said.

He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.  Andrew sat by his left side.  Andrew, the brother who had cared for him and stood by him more closely than anyone.  He had felt that same hand on his shoulder on many a drunken night.  He’d felt it at the death of his wife.  He’d felt it the day he met Jesus.  He’d felt it in four hundred and ninety different moments of unexpected grace.  He placed his own hand on Andrew’s shoulder, and squeezed it tight, for it contained every ‘Thank-you’ he had never spoken.  Andrew returned the squeeze.

Two places to his right sat the poet.  John, so young and tender, had been the bravest of them all.  He, of all the men, had stood with their friend in his darkest hour.  At first, this had served only to remind Peter of his own failure: abandoning his closest friend in his time of greatest need.  But healing, again, had come to him in the embrace of the rabbi, and Peter would forever feel only the deepest admiration for the youngest apostle.  By that same strong grace, John had become the child of a strange adoption to the woman who sat between them.

He watched her eyes.  They, like his own, seemed to be drinking in the sweetness of the room and the memory of grace, and the soft lines of age on the crests of her cheeks were like beams of moonlight.  If anyone there could claim to have deserved Jesus’s grace, it was she, but she never behaved that way.  She never asserted herself on him.  She simply knew him best, as only a mom could, and in that had a curious authority.  Those graceful eyes met Peter’s, and they so looked like her son’s that he felt a strange kind of electricity.  He had never noticed till now how alike their eyes were, and he felt as if his friend’s strength and vigorous grace were flowing to him now.  And grace, for years now, made the fisherman weep.

Our deepest joys are strange things, and they behave much the same as our deepest griefs.  They come upon us unexpectedly, washing over us in unstoppable waves, turning and tossing us until their work is complete, and we are left panting on the sand, the taste of salt on our lips, wondering what just happened.  Peter felt this joy overtake him in this way, and he had much experience in the matters of waves.  He sat now as a man turned up on the shore, and as he looked down he saw with new eyes.  He looked at what lay on the table before him, and smiled at Zacchaeus’s bread.  He remembered when his brother brought a small boy’s lunch to Jesus, and how it fed thousands.  He remembered something his friend had told the crowds about bread after that miracle.  And he knew his first his first charge.  He cleared his throat, and spoke to the room full of friends.

“That last night,” he said, “we shared a meal together, just like we’ve done here.”  The room was quiet, and listening.  “That was the night Judas betrayed him, the night I abandoned him, the night he washed our feet.  It was the night we sang and prayed together, too.  And it was the night he gave himself to us.”

Peter’s fingers hovered over the round, flat loaf that lay before him.  He uttered a silent prayer.  O God, make me clean.  Make me worthy.  He took it up in his calloused hands, and continued.  “I remember him taking bread, breaking it, and giving it to his friends.”

The bread was soft, and it broke apart easily while he spoke.  He began to hand the pieces to his right and to his left.  Each hand took a piece of the bread, and held it in its palm, waiting.  “He took that bread, and lifted it up to heaven, like this.”  His voice became low, and holy.  “He said, ‘Take this, each one of you, and eat it.  This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ “

Peter stared at the piece in his hands, and whispered.  He is with us.  He’s here.  He paused in the silence, and a sea of eyes stared at the Bread which they held in their hands.  He smiled.  “Eat.”

He placed it on his tongue and closed his eyes.  He swallowed hard as tears fell freely.  He opened his eyes and stared for a moment at the cup of wine that sat before him.  He remembered the wedding.  He remembered the water.  He remembered a lamb.  He raised the cup and spoke.  “He gave us wine, too. ‘This is the cup of my blood,’ he said, ‘the blood of the new and eternal covenant.  It will be shed for you, for all, so that sins may be forgiven.  Do this to remember me.’ “

He put the cup to his lips, and drank.  The flavour swirled upon his tongue, and he tasted its full range, its sweetness and bitterness.  He drank deeply, and it warmed his throat as he drank.  He realized a small trail was running from the corner of his mouth into his beard.  He wiped it with the back of his hand, and kissed it away.  He turned to the woman on his right, and held the cup before her.  “This is the blood of Christ,” he said.

“May it be as you say,” she replied, and drank.  She passed the cup to her right.

He looked once more around the room, from Simon to Matthew, from Zacchaeus to John, from Mary to Mary, as each one drank.  He saw stories of sacrifice, of bodies broken, of blood poured out; each story foretelling and remembering and singing of this One Story.   They were the soil, broken and tilled for a harvest of an everlasting friendship.  They were the fruit of this humble and holy vine, crushed and consumed for the warming of the heart and the gladdening of the mind.  They were the offering, poured out on the altar of God.  He prayed in silence the greatest of all prayers:  Thank-you.

How good it is, how pleasant, where the people dwell as one!
Like precious ointment on the head, running down the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron, upon the collar of his robe.
Like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord has lavished blessings, 
Life forevermore.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil, Part Three

The night sky shone with a million stars, and the city below added to the number ten thousand of its own.  He shivered, pulled his knees close to his chest and watched the distant windows glow with a warm, orange light, flickering with quiet life.   Each window was a story, a chapter, a verse, in the telling of Jerusalem’s tale.  The city on the hill lay arrayed with these stories, these jewels, and he watched her with longing.

He could hear his breath as he sat at the mouth of his cave.  The mountain on which he now sat was only one of a great multitude that rolled across the countryside, and it sang now the same song with the great chorus of hills.  Insects, small and hidden, cricked and chirruped their night sounds.  A dark breeze rolled and sighed through the nooks and caves of the hillside, and these sounds together created a deep and holy silence.    

He was tired, exhausted, perhaps more physically weary than he would be for years to come, but this night was not for sleeping.  He was meant to meet someone here, and he waited, eyes fixed on the glimmering city. He remembered a psalm, and it silently played on his lips.

There was a rustling of brush, a flapping of wings unseen, and then, a presence.  Invisible, quiet, but there.  He felt it sitting next to him.  He could hear its voice in his ear, close and still, even and smooth as stone.

beautiful isn’t it?

“Yes,” he said softly.

i love to watch them at night.  i can see them better.

“I know.”

A cloud drifted close.  He could almost hear it touching the mountain.

you love them.


He rubbed his face, cleared his eyes, stroked his beard.

how much do you love them?

He let the crickets answer.

you can have them, if you want them.  they are a burden to me.  every one of them.

He clasped his hands to his ankles.  The breeze ran through his sleeves.  He steadied his gaze.

i want to show you something.  will you let me?

He sighed.  “Yes.”

There was another flapping of wings, and he felt the wind rush past his ears.  He was still staring at the same city, but he seemed also to be looking past it, looking into its very soul, as indeed a city must have one, and he saw it with overwhelming clarity.  It moved and sighed as a living thing, pulsing and breathing, its people the blood in its veins, their work the air in its lungs, their sins the shame in its dreams.

He saw farther and deeper.  He saw all of Israel, and beyond.

He saw people.

He saw a boy crouched over a brown puddle, his face as grimy as the water’s.  He felt the boy’s stomach rumble.  He felt the boy tighten the rope around his waist.  He felt the hunger barely abated.  He saw a king at table.  He felt the fullness in the king’s belly as he ate still more.  The boy clenched his stomach against another pang of hunger; the king doubled over and vomited on the floor, an obscene pool on gilded stone.

He saw a father, calloused hands covering tired eyes, drunk with despair because he failed to feed his family.  He felt the fear in his mind, felt the tears burn his eyes.  And he saw the man for whom this father toiled, indulging his daughter with another soon-forgotten gift.

He saw a woman– no, a girl– bent low before an old man.  He saw the man’s face writhe with pleasure.  He saw him mash the money into her face, spit on her, and leave.  He saw the girl washing herself, and felt the shame dwelling in the pit of her innermost place.

He saw more.

A man impaled on a sword.

A child holding his dead mother’s hand.

He saw a flag.  A nation.  A kingdom.

And he saw the lines of power and impotence that connected them all.

He felt – yes, he knew – every trail of selfishness between the two fathers, every flayed and bleeding bond from the shamed girl to the old man, every cord of greed and want that joined the starving boy with the gluttonous king.  He saw the terrible and fragile web that joined them all.  And in this, he saw every kingdom that ever was and ever would be.  He felt within himself a desire beyond anything he had yet felt.  He wanted to feed the child at the table of the king.  He wanted the old man to feel the girl’s foot upon his neck.  The desire to set all these things right, to make right every wrong, to take control, to tear apart the web with one effortless sweep of his right hand, was almost overwhelming.  He felt a hunger greater than the need for bread, a yearning greater than the want of glory.  With his whole being, he ached for justice.

Again the voice came to him.

their suffering is no pleasure to me.  they have given me power, but i can hand it over to whomever i choose.  i can give you all of this.  the power to remake it as you want it to be.  i know it burdens you.  i can see your tears.

He opened his eyes to the night.  Jerusalem lay still before him, its lights diminishing, its people sleeping.  

the way to justice is not as you think it is.  it need not be so slow in coming.  

He saw how easy it could be.  

you came to bring justice to the earth, did you not?  be their king.

He saw the eyes of the boy, of the father, of the girl.  They pleaded to him.  

will you bring justice by obscurity?  will you right these wrongs by living as a beggar?  do something!  be the king they are pleading for!

He was taken again to the kingdoms of the world.  He saw the starving boy laying lifeless on the ground.  He saw the girl, now a woman, taking yet another man to her bed.  He saw the drunken father alone and weeping in a filthy room.  He saw the eyes of the weeping orphan, still holding his mother, and he saw the soldier cut off the boy’s hand.  

The voice of the unseen one seemed to weep.  o justice, come quickly…

He could see himself as king.  He saw the poor fed, and the wealthy reduced to tears.  He saw peace.  He saw the greatest kingdom the world had yet seen.  And one thing more.  He saw this great kingdom, a kingdom of the world, a kingdom established by power, and it was built upon a spider’s web.  He saw, as clearly as the moon above, what such a kingdom would require of him:  He was kneeling before the one who lived within that web.  He was bent low before the drooling maw of the spider.  And he heard at last the words behind the words; he heard with perfect clarity the demands of his tempter:

all these i shall give to you, if you prostrate yourself and worship me.

He stood, and his voice peeled like thunder into the night wind.  “Away from me, Satan!  It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve!”

The presence was gone, and holiness returned to the sacred night.  He sighed deeply, and tears ran down his cheeks, through his beard, onto the collar of his robe.  He remembered again the Psalm he had begun, and spoke it low and secretly into the night.

    Jerusalem… The mountains surround her, and the Lord surrounds his people,
        both now and forever.  
    The sceptre of the wicked will not prevail in the land given to the just,
       lest the just themselves turn their hands to evil.  
    Do good, Lord, to the good, to those who are upright of heart.  
    But those who turn aside to crooked ways may the Lord send down with the wicked.  
    Peace upon Israel.

He lay down, closed his eyes, and slept as a man at the doorstep of God.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Quoting Deuteronomy to the Devil, Part Two

Forty days is a very long time.  A fortieth night was still to come.

He stood now on the parapet of the temple, his arms resting on the ledge of the high walkway that stood overlooking the courts. He had been drawn here from the desert, but he had not yet left the wilderness.

To anyone passing by, he looked like a beggar; people gave him ample space when they passed.  He had cleansed himself in the mikveh as he entered, but his clothes were still tattered and unkempt, his hair and beard tangled despite his attempts to groom them, his skin drawn and windburned.  

The world seemed to be at once distant and in strange clarity in this state, as if he could see just an inch beyond earth and flesh and bone.  He gazed down at the bustle below him, and at the Holy of Holies above.  It loomed large and silent and shining in the midday sun, and it seemed to stand over the people like a beneficent king, blessing them with arms open wide.  Perhaps Herod had meant this temple for his own glory, but its beauty transcended human achievement, and its white marble walls seemed to gleam with the sunlight of heaven itself.  

He remembered coming here as a boy and seeing it for the first time.  He had been enraptured by its beauty, by its feeling of immensity.  But it was something more than its physical power which stirred his sense of wonder, something which stirred him now even more deeply than it had then.  It was the palpable presence of God.  He felt it as certainly as the warmth and light of the sun on his chest.  He could almost taste it in the air and on his tongue, like an electrical storm, but sweeter: like electricity and sugar.

When he was a boy, he had lingered here for three days, basking in this presence.  Yes, the Lord was present everywhere, but he was here, too.  Somehow, he was more  here; like a man is more completely present when resting in his own home.  Truly this was his Father’s house, his Father’s home.  Truly he rested here.  And now this home was full of guests: sons and daughters that walked busily about in the presence of God, unaware at worst, dimly aware at best, of the holiness that surrounded them.

As he watched these people now, his heart began to break for them, these sons and daughters.  An old man standing silently at prayer, his lips moving with the words of a psalmist.  A mother holding the hand of her son, the way his own mother had held his.   Even the sly, middle-aged business man hawking his doves seemed to call out to him in some unutterable language of love and need.

He was exhausted.  He was hungry.  And he loved them.  He loved them and hungered for them more than he now hungered for bread.  He tasted salt upon his lips, and realized that tears were running down his face.  He wept for them, these sons and daughters; these sheep without a shepherd.

Into his thoughts came a picture.  A shepherd’s staff was in his hand, and the people were gathered at his feet, content, at peace, secure.

if you are the son of god, show them who you really are.  let them see a miracle.  let them see you in glory.

Another picture came to his mind, of falling from where he stood, of being caught in the invisible arms of a thousand attending angels, of being lifted to the heights of the Holy of Holies, sharing in its glory, absorbing its glory, reveling in his sonship.

give them a sign.  throw yourself down, and stand upon the temple!  it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you’.  ‘with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone’.  if you really are his son, if he truly loves you, your father will catch you!  and they will see!  if you are the son of god, then don’t prove it by your power, as with the stones.  that was wrong.  of course that was wrong.  prove it by your father’s power.  just let yourself fall.  for the love of them, show them your father’s power.  show them that the father loves you!

The tracks of his tears had dried on his cheeks.  He could see it so clearly, and something in him longed for this, to revel in his Father’s love in the presence of his people, to show them just how much the Father loved him.  But he remembered Deuteronomy.  He remembered Moses.  He remembered water from a rock at a place called Massah – a place called The Test.  Surely, water from a rock for a thirsty people was right.  But Moses himself had been wrong.  He had doubted the Father’s patience for his people.  He had doubted the Father’s love. For that, the servant of God had not lived to enter the Promised Land.

He could feel now what was wrong with this picture of glory.  Indeed, he would be lifted up before these sons and daughters.  Indeed he would draw them to himself.  Indeed his Father would affirm his love for his Son.  But it would not be in a display of the Father’s power.  It would be in a display of the Son’s restraint, his humility.  In this, in him, the Father would be well pleased.  In this the Father would glory.

He spoke now, from the depth of his spirit through his ragged throat.  “Again it is written: ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test, as you did at Massah.’ ”

His arms trembled under his weight.  He turned from the ledge.  He began to walk, and his parched lips, like the old man’s below him, moved in a silent prayer.

“For the Lord your God, who is with you, is a fervent lover.”

Monday, June 13, 2011


The young man hung his head and walked away.  The teacher’s words had hit him hard, and he had the dazed look of a man who had the wind knocked out of him.

Judas held his steady, studying gaze on the wealthy young man.  Silence hung in the air around them.  Everyone was surprised at the teacher’s words, though of course, surprising words had become surprisingly common.  They were what had drawn each of these disciples and friends, Judas included, to the teacher in the first place.  

As the young man’s footsteps faded, Jesus turned to his friends and spoke quietly, with the faintest trace of disappointment.  “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

“Weren’t you a bit hard on him?” Thomas asked.

Jesus nodded.  “It’s hard, kids.  So very, very difficult, for people who trust in wealth to enter into the reign of God.  It’s easier for a camel to squeeze into the eye of a needle than for a rich man to come under God’s kingship.”

Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek.  Whatever the language, however somber the situation, the rabbi rarely resisted a good pun, and almost never resisted a bad one.  James and John exchanged glances and smiles.  Judas squinted thoughtfully.  Thomas was confused.  

“Wait,” Thomas said.  “Do you mean ‘camel’, like the horse with humps, or did you mean ‘rope’?”  He mimed a rope with his hands, and elongated the similar sounding words with great care.

“You really know how to ruin a good joke,” James sighed.  “If you get either one through a needle’s eye, Thomas, let me know.”

Thomas ignored his comment.  “Teacher…  Wealth comes from God, doesn’t it?  If a wealthy person can’t come into the Kingdom…  Well… Then who can be saved?”  

Judas held his gaze on Thomas, his face earnest and furrowed and waiting. Though his friends often rolled their eyes at Thomas’s questions and his general struggle with literalism, they were grateful that he was willing to ask.  It spared the rest of them the embarrassment.

“In human terms, yes, this is impossible.” replied Jesus.  “But not with God.  Everything is possible with God.”

Peter spoke up, timidly, but with some measure of pride.  “But look at us, Lord…  I mean, I know we’re not rich, but we left everything to follow you.”

Judas, again, was glad that someone else had spoken what he himself was thinking.

Jesus smiled.

“Frankly, kids, there is no one who has left house and home, or brothers or sisters, or mother and father, or even children or farms for my sake, and for the sake of this gospel, but that he’ll receive a hundred times as much, here and now.  Look at what we have gained by having nothing: Houses, homes, brothers and sisters, and moms and kids and farms.  All these things are ours,” he smiled, “because we don’t own them.  And, yes, persecutions and hardships, too.  But in the age to come, eternal life.”

Jesus still had his eyes on the despondent dandy, and sighed.  “But many who are first now will be last, and the last ones first.”

Judas turned to watch the rich young man, now a distant shape against the sand and the ancient walls of the nearby city, and felt the slightest glow of pride within his chest.  He had given up all these things to follow Jesus.  House and home.  Even the prospect of having his own family was something he was willing to set aside to see this Kingdom come.  And it was true, what they had gained.  People had opened their homes, mothers had fed them and fathers had blessed them and children had followed them. And then, in the age to come, when his people were free...

This camel’s through, he thought.  I’ve given everything for him.  

His fingers played absently at the moneybag hanging from his belt.  


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Real World.

He would get little sleep tonight.  His thoughts were agitated.  He was seething as he lay silently under the stars.  The others lay scattered around the smoldering fire, Thomas in arm’s reach to his left, Andrew to his right, but he was as distant from them as the wan moon.

How nice for him. How nice for him to slow down and take his time while we have work to do.  How does he think this little band of followers keeps going?  Not once has he ever even acknowledged what I do to keep these morons fed.  “Render unto Ceasar!” he says.  “Consider the birds!” he says.  Meanwhile I’m working myself dry to keep enough in the moneybag to keep us from starving.  “I’m in no hurry,”  he says.  That’s just the problem, you idiot.  People are suffering.  Your people.  Our people.  And he talks about love.  What does he know about love?  What does he know about suffering?  Yeah, let’s all just love one another.  We’ll make a nice little family where we sit around and pat each other on the back and just loooove one another.  Meanwhile there are people starving.  Meanwhile there are people being crucified for speaking out against this government.  Yes, I’ll just drop everything and make sure little Peter’s feelings aren’t hurt while a family goes hungry tonight.  I’ll go have a little fellowship and get to know little Matthias while Roman soldiers beat a man to an inch of his life just for being a Jew.  “Love one another.”  God, what an idiot.  He has no idea what love is.  He has no idea about the real world.

He would get very little sleep tonight.  There was just too much to think about.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Building Something Beautiful

“I remember being in my dad’s workshop.  I wanted to make a box for my mother.  Something to keep her jewelry in.  I was very little, and it was years before I realized she’d never even worn any jewelry, but in my mind she sparkled, so I suppose it made sense to me.  In any case, I was very determined.  

"So I asked my Dad if he would help me make one.  I was so eager to get it made.  The second he’d square off a corner on a little piece of wood, I’d slap it in place and ask for a nail.  But he would slow me down at every step.  And every time I thought we were finished, there would be another little detail to take care of.  I remember him saying, ‘Slow down, son.  We’re not in a hurry.’  He took my hand and ran it across the flat of the wood, and I saw that it needed a little more sanding.  So he’d take my hand and show me how to sand more finely.  Then I’d see that a corner wasn’t quite true.  He’d crouch down next to me, with his breath on my cheek, and help me line it up just so.  Eventually, I stopped just trying to finish the thing.  I started to enjoy the rhythm of creating it.  And that’s what it was. It was… creation.  You’d never guess the work that goes into creating something so simple.  But I began to notice these little things for myself, and I began to take pleasure in refining them.  I remember my Dad so well, saying it in that low old voice of his,  ‘Slow and sure, son.  Take your time.  Steady, slow and sure.  We’re building something beautiful here.’ ”

The sound of twelve men in silence is a rare thing, but here it was.  The fire popped an ascending spark into the dark sky.

“I’m in no hurry to build this Kingdom, my friends.  Time is fleeting, but it’s only time.  My Dad in heaven gives it to us as water from a stream, and we receive it so, to refresh us.  And we build his Kingdom the way my earthly father helped me build that little box.  Slowly.  Sure, but slowly.  We take care of the details.  We love one another.  We’re building something beautiful here.”

More silence.

Thomas spoke up.  “Did she like it?  The box?”

Jesus smiled.  “It’s still sitting on her mantle.  Empty, as far as I know, but still sitting on her mantle.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Mountain

He was dreaming of food when he was awakened by the terrifying and beatific presence of God.  He would remember this detail later, wishing he had been dreaming of something more profound.  But he was dreaming of a delicious cut of lamb, lavishly seasoned and roasted to perfection.

Jesus had asked these three friends to climb a mountain with him. They had come here to pray.  Peter, recently so renamed, understood why the other two had been asked to come.  John, though young, was intelligent and quiet, asking questions and pondering them with furrowed brow.  His brother James was a natural leader, an initiative taker.  He imagined that these two would be the ones at this saviour’s side when the revolution came, when this Christ he had so recently confessed finally became the King.  

Peter, however, only felt awkward when asked to take charge.  He stammered when he spoke in front of people, and usually knew that what he had to say probably wasn’t of much worth.  So confident when in command of a two-man fishing boat, his heart raced like a rabbit at the thought of leading anything beyond a fishing expedition.  He admitted few fears, but this fear was vast and wide, and covered the expanse of his internal landscape.

Even the climb seemed to underscore his unworthiness.  The brothers were always several paces ahead of the lumbering, breathless Peter.  Even James, who was not exactly a thin young man, darted easily up the path.  But Peter indeed was the Boulder, and it was a difficult thing to push a boulder uphill.  The trees lining the trail became crutches as he slowly pulled himself up the ascent.  He was quietly grateful, if more than a little embarrassed, that Jesus chose to walk beside him at his own pace.  

“You can go on ahead,” Peter had said.  “I’ll catch up.”

“I don’t mind,” Jesus smiled.  “I want to walk with you.”

It took a full day to reach the summit, and by the time they had arrived, Peter’s lungs were gulping for life at the thin air.  They had come here to pray, and his first gasping prayer was perhaps his most earnest: “Oh God…  Oh... Lord…  Oh God…”  

He collapsed onto a rock in the shade of a spruce, hands on his knees, trying to catch his illusive breath while the brothers took in the impressive panorama.  Jesus came and stood next to him, then squatted on his haunches beside him.

“How are you?” Jesus asked.

Peter looked at him with kind but sardonic eyes.  “It’s a lovely mountain,” he said.  “Thanks for inviting me.”  He attempted a smile.

Jesus put a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

When Peter had at last found his breath, he stood and walked with Jesus to the vista point where James and John stood.   He drew a deep breath.  He had never before been up this high, and the crisp air of autumn, though thin, felt good in his nostrils.   He imagined that maybe this was what Adam’s first breath from the mouth of God felt like.

The four of them stood in silence, and took in the view of the outlying countryside. Here and there, mottled among the towns, they saw small wooden shelters in place for this week of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.  Peter thought of his people, in ages past, led by Moses through the wilderness, their shelters set beside a mountain not unlike this one.  He wondered about Moses, and about his own ascent of this mountain.  I hope he was in better shape than I am.

Here they stood and recited the psalms together.  More precisely, Jesus and James and John recited the psalms.  Peter recited what he could remember, letting the other three fill in the gaps.  He was never good at memorization.  But he prayed just the same.

“From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of the Lord be praised,” they chanted.

He liked that line, for the same sun burned quietly at the edge of the western horizon.

Peter slept deeply that night, and dreamt of food.


The light was everywhere.  

Peter awoke with that cold first breath of Adam.  His heart was racing, and all he could see was light.  Light beyond light.  A spectrum of colours and hues which he knew should be beyond his vision.  It was all around, penetrating and giving a quality of phosphorescence to even the motes of dust in the air before him.  

His first thought was that he had awakened within another dream, but with the light came a solidity of form that betrayed any illusion of a dream.  He looked around him, and saw James and John sitting upright from their mats, looking as confused and alarmed as he himself was.  There was a place within him that felt relieved at that.

The light had a source, and his eyes quickly found it.  His eyes did not adjust to this new sense of sight so much as his mind did.  When it did, he saw with more clarity than he ever had or ever would again.  And what his eyes then beheld was something he would never thereafter be able to adequately describe.  There was Jesus, the Christ he had confessed just days before, standing within what seemed to be a softly glowing ring, an emerald rainbow.  Jesus, the one who had forever changed the fisherman with the giving of a new name, the one who walked so patiently with him up this mountain, shining with light as if he were the sun itself.  His robes were white, whiter than any cloth Peter had ever seen.  Whiter than any soap could ever bleach ‘em, Peter thought distantly.

Peter fell upon his hands, and seemed to feel the earth humming beneath him.  No, not humming.  Trembling.  Alive.  Quaking as he himself was, as a man before unspeakable holiness.  He had felt some taste of this before, that day on the beach, when this same Christ had held him and let him weep.  Now, the earth itself seemed to shake before this man.

There were two others in the center of the virescent ring, and Peter knew without question precisely who they were.  It was proclaimed from their very spirits and even in the solidity of their form, forms as tangible as his own and perhaps more intrinsically real.  Moses stood on the Messiah’s left, his hand in subservience but tenderness upon the Christ’s arm.  Elijah stood to his right, as fierce and focused, and as familiar to Peter’s eyes, as John the Baptizer.  Peter could hear the three speaking together, and he discerned such words as “paschal sacrifice,” and “exodus.”

And suddenly Peter felt himself overcome with longing and joy and tears.  The fear which made his heart race had become the thrill of seeing something indescribably, wonderfully good, and it seemed to him that it should go on forever.  His soul cried out for this to be eternal, for his soul saw something here of Sinai, of Mamre, of Eden.

The shelters of wood and cloth came to his mind, with images of a holy mountain and announcements about deliverance and a kingdom of priests, and he saw those two figures turning as if to leave, as if being relieved of a long-borne duty.  But he wanted them to stay.  To remain here with them forever.  Before he knew he was talking aloud, he heard himself speaking.

“My rabbi… My Lord…  It’s good that we’re here!  If you want, I’ll make three shelters!  I can make one for you!  And one for Moses, and one for Eli…”  And here his voice faltered into a whisper.  “...jah.”

Another light came.  His hands, his whole body, quavered with the earth beneath him as this mantle of light descended from the very fabric of the sky.  It seemed to be a cloud made of light, and it surrounded them completely.  I’m inside of lightning, he thought, and he tried to shield his eyes.  With the cloud came a voice.  It met his ears with the resonance of thunder and the timbre of song.  He wept at the sound of it, though he knew not why.  But he remembered Moses again.  He remembered his receiving of the law upon the mountain.

The voice, so unlike anything he had heard before, encompassed all the sounds of the natural earth, and spoke as the blast of a thousand shofars, but also as a whisper in his ear.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Peter now fell prostrate, splayed upon the ground and weeping.  He could hear James to his right and John to his left, shivering and whimpering.  All of this, he knew, was beyond what any human should ever have seen, and he wept with joy and fear upon the trembling earth.

A hand touched his shoulder, and there was only silence.

A voice, soft and human, spoke above him.

“Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Peter, his face smeared with tears and dust, lifted his eyes, and saw only Jesus.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Old Nets

The nets were old, almost as old as the boat they sat in, and the boat seemed to hum a grandfatherly song as it rocked and creaked in the shallows.  John set a young hand on the greying wood of the mast, felt its smooth, worn grains and cracks beneath his fingers, and pondered a strange day.  A strange and beautiful day.  And it was only a few hours past noon.  

It had begun with a sermon from the seashore.  That in itself was not terribly unusual, but the crowd grew large enough that the rabbi had preached from a boat.  It was a sermon that stayed with him.  It was a strange sermon about a kingdom, and repentance, and there had been something about not having to worry about tomorrow.

He considered this as he watched the other hired men gathered at the shore.  They were sorting through a haul of fish that rivaled anything John had seen taken in by a fleet of fishing boats, let alone the two meager vessels that made up this struggling company.  The haul was miraculous indeed, but it was probably as much a miracle that the ancient boats had made it back without sinking.  Zebedee’s sons, John and James, had been in partnership with the other brothers, Simon and Andrew, for some time now.  Their struggling businesses had found one another like two cripples with complimenting handicaps, each helping the other to walk just a little farther.

The simpler days of a man building a boat and taking some nets to make a living lay dead in the ground with their dear old granddad, whose boat they now sat in.  Low yields of fish and constant boat repairs were hurting them.  Taxes and tariffs were killing them.

And so, the partnering of James and John with Andrew and Simon was a tenuous and somewhat strained relationship, but a necessary one.  Andrew was reliable enough, and had some keen business sense that had been a great help to Zebedee and his sons, but his brother was another matter.  Simon was a decent fellow, most often.  Reliable to a point, until he needed a drink, and an affable fellow until he had one.  After that he was nothing less than an ornery, disagreeable sonuvabitch.  But to be in business with Andrew was to be in business with Simon.  Thus they had survived a difficult few seasons, and thus they hoped to survive a few more.

“John, this one’s tangled to hell.”  

James, John’s older brother by four years, handed John the mess of a net.  He was never good with such intricate endeavors as detangling.  His hands were adept at casting and pulling and hauling, but they, like the rest of him, were a little too pudgy for finer work.  He set himself instead to what he thought was the simpler work of repairing frayed nets.

John felt a swell of gratefulness for that frayed net, and the strange intuition of the itinerant rabbi.  The old nets, like the creaking boats, had held together.  Miracle number three, John thought, and remembered that line about not worrying about tomorrow.

He looked upon the scene around him, from the bustling shore to the boat in which he stood.  His brother sat across from him, already completely occupied with his net.  Behind James, his back turned to them and his face to the sea, was his father, ever-present, though often quiet.  It was easy to forget he was there sometimes, and John realized he had just now, in fact, done this.  Zebedee’s head, grey-rimmed and bald, was bowed, his hands engaged in an unseen task.  It somehow gave him a certain look of holiness, as though he was in the midst of a deep prayer.  John smiled to himself at this, as his father, though faithfully religious, was far from holy.

He returned his eyes to the task at hand, and sighed deeply at the tangled mess of his net.  This would take a while.  Somewhere in the center of those tangles he saw some movement, and realized there was one last musht tangled up in the center of it all.  He suddenly felt queazy.  

Sometimes, a thought seems to come from the pit of a man’s stomach, a truth that rises up from the place of his appetite, and it’s too true for a stomach to handle.  For John, it was the thought, the truth, of that feebly flopping fish in the center of the net:

That’s me.

John was still a young man, just nineteen years old.  He had had grand thoughts about how his life would be.  But with each compromise of practicality, of necessity, a net had been drawn more tightly around him, and the dreams of youth had slowly but inevitably been given over to the realities of staving off poverty.  Zebedee and his sons were not yet poor, but this had only remained so with great effort.

These thoughts entangled him, until he heard a terrible wail and moan rising from the beach.  He looked up to find the fourth miracle of the day.  He was almost getting used to these miracles, but what he saw now was something on par with the parting of the Red Sea.  Simon, their friend and partner in the fishing business, their friend because there was no word for someone who you simply didn’t want for an enemy, was wiping snot from his dripping nose and wailing in the arms of the rabbi. Simon, who had knocked precisely four teeth from three mouths at the tavern a few nights ago, was crying like a toddler.

“James.”  He elbowed his older brother and pointed.  “Look.”

“Hooooly…” James trailed off.  “What is going on there?”

“I don’t know,” John responded in a kind of wonder.  “He’s not drunk.  At least he wasn’t ten minutes ago.”

On Simon’s third drifting moan, their father turned and looked as well.  His lips parted and his brows furrowed.  “What in the hell?” he said.

Simon and the teacher stood, Zebedee and sons unabashedly staring at the scene. The teacher’s hands were on Simon’s shoulders, and he seemed to be telling him something of great importance.  They embraced, and the teacher and the fisherman began walking along the shore toward James and John and their father.  Simon was recovering in sniffs and sharp breaths.  They drew near, and the teacher, Jesus, gave them a wave.   It was a wave less childlike, though no less innocent, than the one they’d gotten from him while they were out on the lake earlier that day.

They were, indeed, both bemused and amazed by the man.  He had preached that morning about repentance and a kingdom, and his words had stayed with John like a new song.  Something about his words, and the man himself, was like an invitation.  Even his exuberant wave was an invitation to joy, and even now he couldn’t help returning it with a smile.  He and James waved back.

“Why don’t you come, too?” the teacher called.

John’s heart leaped into his throat and began to pound madly, though he didn’t know why.  But his heart knew, and it was pouncing like a dog at the door when its master is near.

“Us?” John called.

“Yes, both of you.  Come with us.”

“Come where?” James asked.

“To follow me,” Jesus said simply.  “To be my disciples.”

John laughed.  “Are you serious?”

“Of course.  You’re both good fisherman.  Follow me, and you’ll be catching people.”

It sounded like a feeble joke, but John’s heart knew it wasn’t, and that heart was still thrashing at the door.  

John looked at the tangled net at his feet, the fish in the center of it now gasping for its last breaths.  He looked from the net to his brother, who stared back with a look of alarm on his face.  He looked from his brother to his father, who was now standing there with his hands on his hips, sweat dripping from the dome of his pate.  His father, the quiet man, held his eyes with a squint.

“You should go.  Both of you.”

John thought he knew his father well.  This surprised him.  Miracle number five.

“But the…  the fish, the business…,” John stammered.

His father dismissed this with a wave.  “You think I didn’t hear his sermon this morning?  You think I didn’t see the looks on your faces while you listened?”

John and his brother were silent.

Their father lifted his hand toward the fish on the shore. “I think we got enough to see me through for a while.  I can hire an extra hand or two.  I know you, John, and I know there’s more to your soul than a fisherman’s son.  There’s some kind of light in there that’s more than I can reckon.”  He turned his eyes to James, the elder.  “You need this, too, James.  You’re a good son.  But there’s something greater in you that you haven’t found yet.  I think you can find it with this man.  I’d be proud to have the both of you go with him.”

James opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t find a word.  John couldn’t either.

“I love you, boys.  Go on.”

James and John shared a look that said everything it needed to say.  John took his knife from his belt, began to slash a line through the middle of the tangled mess at his feet, and in a moment the net was tangled no more.  He reached in and his hands found the fish, barely alive as it was.  He drew it from its confinement, and tossed it gasping into the open water.  It darted away with surprising speed.

The day was strange and beautiful, and the nets were old.