Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: Bible Stories

Luke Learns to Listen — A Bible Story

Luke Learns to Listen

———–

Acts 16:6-10 (The Message)
They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas.

That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.

———–

Paul stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. I was walking  a few paces ahead with Silas and didn’t realize it until Timothy called to us, “Wait, he’s doing it again!” 

We were headed north on the road to Bithynia. The hills around us were just greening with spring and the cyprus trees on the ridge we climbed were swaying in a stiff but pleasant breeze. It seemed to me a beautiful day to be walking through the countryside with such a purpose as ours. I had travelled a lot more than many men I knew but never with this pulsing sense of importance. Each step we took seemed like a dream. The days were long, and some of the hills quite steep, but my body flexed and stretched with joy to carry me and the hope I had in me to those who had never heard the name of Jesus. It felt good to be on the road with Paul and Silas, and now, with Timothy whom we had met in Derbe.

Timothy’s shout woke me from my pleasant body meditation. We turned around, walking some hundred paces back to where Paul was standing with his eyes closed as if carefully listening — straining to hear some delicate melody or whisper in the cyprus that meant something more than just the turn of the season.

We stood there in a small circle around him for a moment until Silas asked, “What is it Paul?”

“It’s not right,” he muttered. “This isn’t the way.”

I stifled the urge to say, “Of course it is, there is only one road to Bithynia.” I had learned from the last time he stopped in the road at the previous northward fork into the Province of Asia. He wasn’t listening to just any wind. 

“Come on, we’re going back. We have to keep heading East.” Paul said as he suddenly about-faced and trotted back down the hill.

“I guess we’re heading to Troas, then?” Silas yelled his honest question after him.

“Maybe,” Paul yelled without turning around. I could tell by the way he said it that he was smiling. We hurried after him. Timothy hoisted the pack and brought up the rear. The Spirit of Jesus was leading us somewhere, but I had no idea where.

It was good not to know for a while. I had spent so much of my life discovering, deducing and deciding, that this life of surprises was exhilarating. Having no idea was a new experience for me and it felt good. Like my muscles on the road, I was using parts of me I didn’t know existed until then.

“Seems right to me, too.” Silas said, clapping my back, “Eastward it is!”  

A couple weeks later we were in Troas where I had some decent connections to offer the party and the mission. I found us lodging and we set up for a few days in the atrium of the Neandria Gate. We had only just begun the work of spreading the Good News in the rich port city before it was time to leave again.

Paul came to us on our fourth morning in Troas advising us to pack our bags. “We have to go to Macedonia.” he said.

This time I didn’t stifle my objection, “But Paul, I’ve already paid our rent for the week. We still have three more days.”

“We’ll have to take the loss. I had a dream last night.”

Then he told us of the Macedonian man begging him to come across the sea to help them. It was further than I had expected to go, but something about the way he told the story of his dream compelled me to go along with them. It was so plain — matter of fact. The dream was not a fanciful fleeting thought of unconsciousness; it was a message. And Paul did not doubt it. So neither did we.

I actually managed to get a refund on the room and put the money towards our fare on a trade vessel slated to sail for Neapolis in Macedonia the very next morning. Timothy and Silas had never sailed before and I tried to settle their apprehension. Odd that none of us was afraid of following this almost wild man’s dreams and feelings on the road. We were growing accustomed to that, I guess.  

It was a scramble to get everything ready that day, but we managed it so easily. In less than 24 hours after Paul told us about his dream, we were on a ship crossing the Aegean. After the bustle of the harbor we turned north across the wide water. I went to the stern of the boat and breathed the salty breeze. Steadying myself as the boat bounded over the dancing sea, I began to dream of who we would meet in Macedonia and wondered if I too would hear from God as Paul had. Nothing seemed impossible. 

How Psalm 23 Came to Be — A Bible Story

How Psalm 23 Came to Be

An imagined moment with the poet king

The King sat on his throne, harp in hand, looking out the window from his palace on the hill called Zion. The hills around him were green with spring and across the valley a huge flock of his own sheep grazed happily, not a shepherd in sight. He imagined himself as their shepherd, though in his herding days he had never tended a flock so big. His chief husbandman employed dozens of men to care for the royal flock, but either because of the distance or because they happened to be on the other side of the hill at that moment he could see none of them. And though he could do nothing for them now, nor did they need anything from him or anyone else, he half started from his royal seat to strike out across the valley to go to them. But they wouldn’t know him and he thought better of it. 

All Israel was his flock now and the business of the city he had built and the empire he dreamed it to be had many more needs that only he could address. The tenuous peace he now enjoyed, after so many years of struggle could  only be maintained by great wisdom. The path forward was barely a sheep path of matted grass, and he must pay careful attention to move his people forward through the winding way they must go. Delicate diplomacy, shrewd action and just the right measure of force required constant consultation and discernment. From without and within, Jerusalem’s peace was threatened by many dangers. All this needed his attention. 

Though not just yet. He knew that he also needed the songs he wrote in the afternoons if he was going to keep up with the demands of his dreams. There was always too much to do, and though he loved the doing, he knew his afternoon solitude gave him more strength for more doing. Each afternoon he dismissed all his officials and picked up his harp to see if there were any tunes in his heart that needed to be born as songs for his people, and sometimes just for him.

His shepherd-self of so many years ago would have never recognized him now. As to the sheep across the valley on the hill, he would be a stranger. But though the shepherd boy never knew the king, the king still knew the boy, and his thumb struck a chord that the boy, too, had loved to hear. And up from the green hills of spring sprang a new song:

A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Martha’s Mastery — A Bible Story

What if you were Martha? The Martha who chided Mary for sitting at the Master’s feet and got chided herself by Jesus. How did that feel? I put a story around that question. I hope it awakens the right kind of wonder and discomfort in you.

Martha’s Mastery

——–

At the Home of Martha and Mary 
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:38-42

——–

Martha never lived down that moment. She had been called out. And who of all people had done the calling out? Jesus himself. How do you get beyond that? Now, she was a worrier. Now she was upset forever. And all this from the man who clearly told us not to worry. That was the hardest part for Martha. She was devoted to Jesus’ teaching more than her sometimes flighty younger sister. It was Martha who learned about Jesus first — the things he was saying — the sick people he was healing — the authority the people said he had. It was Martha who had been in the marketplace gathering news of the Nazarene prophet before Mary knew anything about him. Martha had memorized every half sentence she could collect before Mary even met Jesus. 

To be fair, it was Mary who received him to the house this time, but Martha had made the original introduction. The heat from political fires was too hot in Jerusalem and Jesus needed a place to dodge the authorities. The first time he came to the house it was at Martha’s invitation. She heard of his need for a place to stay near the city and through the contacts she had made in the movement she eagerly offered her home in Bethany as a retreat and safehouse. The first time Jesus stood in her house, smiling gratefully but visibly weary, Martha confirmed every exciting rumor she had heard about him without having to ask a single question. She knew by the look of him that the things people said about him were true and she immediately put her house and all her wealth at his disposal. She did not hesitate. There was not a shred of worry in her then, and what more could she offer? What more could she risk but everything she owned? 

She had restored the house to much of its original glory through her shrewd management of the family finances. Her baby brother Lazarus, might as well have been an actual baby when their father died and left the business to him. “Fourteen going on four,” they used to tease him. Lazarus was honest and diligent though. After a season of several years in which the business floundered and their mother  followed their father into death, Lazarus and Martha had turned things around. The business had completely recovered and in fact surpassed their father’s previous position. Increasing the stock and controlling prices on nard in all of Judea. Eventually it became clear who the brains of the operation was and local traders started coming directly to her to cut the biggest deals, knowing that speaking to Lazarus was at best, indirect and, at worst, a waste of time. She held the purse strings.

But she was frugal and refused to hire any servants for simple housework. She enjoyed the humble work and spent much of her chore filled hours in prayer. Perhaps the relative secrecy of their fortune and her ostensibly indirect control over it guarded her heart from being consumed by it. A man in her position would most likely turn his soul toward the fortune and away from God but this did not happen to Martha. She offered her house and money to Jesus and his movement without hesitation and no regret. 

“What else was the money for?” She thought. And how could she lose what she was so good at building? If they lost some money, she was sure there would be other opportunities to make it back. How could anything be so bad as after mother died and she had no idea what she was doing? No, that was long ago and she was confident, that even if the Romans seized the house, they would figure something out. But as for that, she doubted they would ever find Jesus there, or know anything of his presence. They had taken great precautions. Peter was amazing at devising a way in and out of anywhere.   

It was mostly a joke — that thing she said. Mary was so consumed with what Jesus was saying that she sat right down among the disciples instead of arranging for their comfort, as Martha was doing. It was supposed to be a gentle reminder to Mary that there was work to do and Martha needed her help. Martha could be angry at times, and most often with Mary for exactly this sort of behavior — her absent mindedness — but she wasn’t even mad this time. She was just excited to have Jesus in the house again. 

Carrying a basin of warm water in to set beside him, she said over Jesus’ shoulder as she caught Mary’s eye, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

The conversation seemed to pause in perfect time around her half-jest and everyone in the room heard what was meant  for only his and Mary’s ears. 

Jesus turned to her and everyone else turned to her, and he said those words that left her feeling so pegged — the ones she never lived down “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

 She was furious with him then “Mary has chosen better?! What?! How has she chosen any different than me?!” Martha thought. 

Her fists clenched and her teeth were set as she turned around without response. Embarrassed, she retreated to the other room where she sat down bewildered. But she couldn’t bear to direct her anger at that marvelous man, so all her fury slid off his shoulders and landed on her sister’s. Leaning back in her seat she could peer through the door and see Mary there gazing up at Jesus who had so easily moved on to another subject. 

“How dare she. Does she think she can be a disciple too? Does she not see that the room is full of men? All men! Except for her. There she is in the place of honor, at the master’s feet. What kind of Rabbi is he anyway — letting her do that?” 

Abruptly, she stood up, brushed off her apron and got back to work. Her hospitality would go on without her sisters help, it must. She busied herself with what needed doing. 

But later that night as she stared into the dying fire, embers chasing each other in a boundless race, she returned to nursing her wound. “Mary would never have even known about Jesus if it weren’t for me. We would have nothing to offer him if it weren’t for me. There would be no comfort, no food, no house!” She thought to herself.

But the attack on Mary didn’t work. Her thoughts returned to where they had been all evening as she washed Jesus and the disciples’ feet clean from the dusty road and fed them fresh baked bread.  Jesus was right. 

The reason it hurt so bad to hear him say those words was that they were true. She knew what needed to be done and that was the problem. How could she learn his new way if she was so good at her old way? Her mind was so full it was almost as if she could feel it bulge as she tried to fit the image of Mary sitting at his feet into it. Jesus thought Mary could do it. The answer to her indignant question from earlier that evening was “Yes!” Mary did think she could be a disciple, and Jesus agreed. Would Mary also be sent out like the 72 men who had recently gone out in Jesus’ name healing the sick and proclaiming the good news? It almost hurt to realize that it wasn’t impossible.

And creeping behind the possibility of Mary was the even more impossible thought that she too might be sent likewise. She dreaded the growing realization that, after making so much of herself despite the obvious disadvantages, she might have to master something else. 

But with the master sleeping in the next room the dread seemed not so dreadful. If she could corner the southern market on nard, why couldn’t she too cast out a demon? 

“Give me some time,” she said aloud to the fire, “Give me some time.”

——–

On the Holy Mountain: A Christmas Story

My dad posted one of his Christmas Stories this week on his blog, Development, at circleofhope.net/rodwhite. I had at least 3/4 of a mind to do the same before he did so I took it as confirmation. My family began writing Christmas Stories together when I was seven years old. I love it. Here’s some shared love from 2014:

On the Holy Mountain

by Ben, 2014

She stood helplessly at a measured, safe distance, staring in abject despair.  How was this happening?  What had gotten into her little one?  Hadn’t she taught her better than this?  Hadn’t she consistently, unswervingly, unfailingly admonished her against behavior such as this?  It was unthinkable what her little one was doing.  How could she do this?  How!?

She was angry, frustrated, infuriated… scared.  So utterly terrified she couldn’t move.  How could she?  Everything within her, every muscle and tendon was as taut as an un-sprung hunter’s trap—ready to snap and keep her there forever, or fling her away in a twang.  Her nerves could capture her in stone terror, and she could bleed out eternity immobile as if her foreleg were crunched by an actual trap—or, and hopefully this was the case, she could bounce herself away in one bleating bound over any of the hills at the foot of this mountain.  Just as soon as It took one more step in this direction, or maybe one more.  Her body pulsed in readiness.  She was twitching  from the tension of this interminable moment.

The anchor of her heart, her baby, her final joy, her love, began to walk closer toward a danger greater than she had yet known. It was a fearsome brute the  likes of which she had never seen that had her strung so tightly—so desperately wanting to run and so paralyzed with motherly love.  How could she be doing this to me?  How?  Her initial cries of warning were now silenced in the overwhelming flood of fear.  She had never been this still and at the same time so close to something so deadly.

She had spent the springs and summers of her youth in the high meadows almost carelessly, filling her belly with sweet grasses and clover.  Winters were in the low country and sometimes there wasn’t much food but she never remembered the snow after a week or two of spring.  She did remember the wolves that first fall in the bottoms.  There among the moldering leaves of some river bend on the other side of the mountain they came nasty and snarling through the softened leaves—clever creatures that took down several of her friends that day.  She didn’t remember the friends, only the blood on the muzzles and teeth of the wolves’.  She vowed then never to bleed in a predator’s mouth.  She wouldn’t be prey.

And this thing before her now was twice the size, no three times the size, or four, of those wolves that had stalked her.  And they had stalked her.  They had stalked her even when they weren’t stalking her, every moment of her life.  And so, her promise to herself had stayed true.  She had survived for many seasons and through many dangers real and imagined.  She caught their scent on the wind and ran fast enough away.  She listened long enough to every twig cracking in the trees, shot her head to attention and stayed stiff necked in vigil every time she suspected—every time.  And it was worth it.  It was all worth it.  How many children had she brought into the world over those many seasons of survival?  Four or five?  One year there were two, she knew that for certain.  This one would be the last.  This one whom she loved and feared for with all of her would be the last one she would bear.

And her disappearing joy now skipped gleefully toward a monstrous peril.  Though she had never seen one like it before she knew it would redden its lips with her lamb’s blood.  Its teeth must be bigger than a wolf’s, because it was much, much bigger than a wolf. She saw its huge claws, black in blond paws with dark pads underneath.  Oh God, she was close enough to see the pads underneath its feet!  Why was she still there?  The hulk had lay down in the grass in front of her baby.  It flicked its long tufted tail and flopped its ridiculously shaggy head over its foreleg.  And then the moment she had been fearing came.  As her lamb stepped confidently within swiping distance of those mighty limbs. It opened wide its mouth to reveal teeth which were indeed larger than any wolf’s.  She stood unflinching, now completely numbed by the impossibility of her circumstance.  But instead of biting, the animal closed its mouth and licked her lamb on the head as she nuzzled into the shagginess below its chin.

Her lamb had done this so many times with her.  She loved how her little one had always loved sitting right under her head.  And she loved the peace of those common moments- sharing each other’s warmth in the cold of the early spring mornings.  Occasionally she would let her own head rest upon her lamb for a minute.  It was nice, but such luxuries of comfort were too lavish for the reality they lived in.  She thought better of too much rest and comfort.  Vigilance had proven a better friend than any other.

She had tried, as with any of the other little ones, to teach this one,  the secrets of her vigilance.

Listen.  Listen hard.  Never stop listening.

It doesn’t matter what it might be because it could be danger.

Anything can be danger.

Some things you have seen before or heard before, although they were not dangerous before, could be dangerous a second time.  Do not trust your previous experience.  Nothing is certain.  If you have not seen something or smelled something before it is most likely danger.  Assume danger. And smell too.  Many dangers come silently but they cannot escape the wind.  Wolves sometimes know the winds, though, so you must look, and listen and smell, always.  “Never not on guard” this was her motto.  This was her survival.

All these lessons crumbled now before her in a broken heap.  Her lamb was lying with this lying beast as if that monster and not she herself were the mother—as if life were not as she had known it.

“That was a yawn” she thought.  “It yawned and then it licked my baby. ”

The lamb nibbled the whiskers coming from the predator’s face.  After some minor snarls it gently, yes gently, nibbled her lamb’s ear.  It bared its giant teeth and, probably more with its black lips than with those daggers for teeth, quietly corrected her baby and went back to its repose.  What had happened to the world?

She no longer felt like she herself would certainly die.  Her body was safe for the moment, but she could not let her instincts go.  She could not believe even for a moment that what was happening was anything but the delay of her lamb’s death.  She had failed as a mother.  Her last viable progeny would wait patiently to be eaten by something bigger and fiercer than any menace this sheep had ever encountered.

Her muscles flexed and released, and into their softness spread the ache of rigid attention’s strain.  It felt like safety.  The burn of lactic acid reminded her of all she had known in her many seasons.  Her body knew what was good more than she could shape a thought of it in her mind.  She could trust that pain.  And yet the scene before her undermined that faith.  Could the lamb know more than her about this resting brute?  It was obviously a killer.  It could swallow her lamb in two bites.  But it hadn’t done that.  The two lay together in peace.

The serenity she saw gave her courage to reinitiate her calls.  She bleated her most desperate cry of urgency.  “Come!  Come quick!  Come away!”

The lamb perked her ears and bleated back in her tiny voice a sound so content it burned her mother’s ears.  It seemed her lamb was falling asleep.  The sides of the giant heaved in steady rhythm as well.  The immediate threat was definitively over.  Despite this, she could not, and this was her greatest shame, force her feet to fall any closer.  Her lamb was just as lost now as if it were devoured.  It might have well been eaten because where the lamb had gone she could not follow.  As much as she wanted to rescue her lamb she could not approach their slumber.

Instead she slowly turned and fixed her eyes on the hills to which she had so desperately desired to leap.  The mortal panic was gone but her heart’s direction hadn’t changed.  She trudged away sadder than she had ever been.  She managed a few sideways glances over her haunches and saw the same serenity.  It confounded her.  It troubled her.  It cut her to the heart.  How can this be?  She lost herself in these mysteries for a time as she plodded up the hill and into a stand of trees.  A twig snapped to her right.  She bolted upright and stood perfectly still.  Another crack!  A human child emerged from behind a tree with a pack of wolves behind him.  She flew left as if she were still a young sheep and disappeared from their sight.

__________________

The lion stirred and looked up to the hill with half opened eyelids.  He saw the boy descending the hill with his pack.  “Hmm, what good could come of this?” he asked.

He liked this fuzzy white thing that had come to take a nap with him.  This mountain was colder than his home and he appreciated the warmth that it produced.  It was so pleasant to sit at peace.  He had a foggy recollection of some other pleasure that may have dominated a moment like this in his past.  Something like hunger used to prick holes in any peace, but now he felt nothing but satisfaction.  It seemed that everything that came to him was a gift — this fuzzy white thing, the perpetual fullness of his belly, the warmth of the sunlight on his face, and now these wolves led by a little child, yes “child”, he was previously aware of the small humans.   He welcomed the one who was coming to him now and his wolf brethren.

Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea

Conversations with Lamentations

Biblical lament is hard to handle. Lament is hard to handle.  When we decided to practice lament as a way to hope for Advent, the idea resonated with me but I don’t know if I knew how hard the practicing would be. I’m finding all kinds of reason to avoid the difficulty. They come in internal and external narratives. Inside, I am very aware of the difficulty and I prefer to avoid the pain. Outside, Christmas is a happy time to turn on all the jolly. We definitely need a little Christmas, but we are working toward a deeper Christmas, a narrower way — a way that gives us less chance to fake it — a way that yields more real and robust hope and is more real with the situation we are all in together. I hope it “works.” The Lord is near. May we know it.

Here are some unfiltered, hopefully unfake reactions to the Biblical laments on the daily prayer this week. I hope they evoke your own conversations.

Is that allowed? (Me and Jeremiah)

“Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.” — from Jeremiah 15

Me: Jeremiah, are you allowed to talk to God like that?
Jeremiah: It’s poetry. You’re telling me you never felt like that?
Me: …
Jeremiah: Well, I’ve felt like that. I’ve felt like that a lot.
Me: But aren’t you, I don’t know, like, insulting God?
Jeremiah: Better to insult God than to lie to God, I say. You think God doesn’t already know?!

Mental Gymnastics (Me and Jesus)

 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.” — from Psalm 22

Me: Jesus, you’re God, God can’t forsake you. That means you would be forsaking yourself.
Jesus: Here we go with the mental gymnastics.
Me: You are in the Father and the Father is in you.
Jesus: And yet I said what I was feeling, so…
Me: But why did you say it if it can’t be true?
Jesus: What are you running from?
Me: Huh? Why do you ask?
Jesus: I died so you could feel forsaken and not have to hide from my Father. Adam, why are you staying in the bushes.
Me: Adam?
Jesus: By the way, did you read to the end of David’s psalm?
David: They never do.
Adam: They never do.
Me: Whoa, where did you guys come from?
Jesus: I always said my Father was a God of the living, didn’t I?

Why so mad? (Me and Habakkuk)

“I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.” — from Habakkuk 3

Me: Habakkuk, Are you angry?
Habakkuk: Hell yes!
Me: You should probably tone it down a little. Your anger is scary and it doesn’t sound very Christian.
Habakkuk: Excuse me?
Me: … Um, well, I know you’re in the Bible and all but I don’t think you should be so angry. God loves those people invading you too.
Habakkuk: That’s what you’re going to do to me? Do you hear me talking about decay in my bones and my trembling legs? This is some scary stuff, here. What do you do when you’re feeling like that? Say nothing?
Me: …
Habakkuk: …
Me: Um … yeah. I usually say nothing.

So what? (Me and Amos)

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph. — from Amos 5

Me; Amos, are you implying that God is not with us as we say God is?
Amos: Sure doesn’t look like it.
Me: But God is our God. We love God.
Amos: God’s son said if you love him you will keep his commandments.
Me: God’s love is unconditional.
Amos: So what?
Me: So God loves us no matter what.
Amos: And?
Me: And that’s it.
Amos: …
Me…
Amos: …
Me: That’s not it?

DOES God make everything better, though? (Me and Jeremiah again)

“I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” — from Lamentations 3

Me: Jeremiah, you should probably forget all that negativity.
Jeremiah: What’s that now?
Me: The affliction, wandering, bitterness, gall. Just let it go.
Jeremiah: How could I do that?
Me: You just said how. The Lord’s great love, compassion that never fails, gotta stay positive.
Jeremiah: I don’t understand.
Me: God makes everything better.
Jeremiah: Oh really?

The Best I Can Do (Me and Isaiah)

“Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!” — from Isaiah 1

Me: God, why do you have to be like that?
God: …
Me: …
God: …
Me: We worked really hard on those festivals. They were for you.
God: Your life together is not a kindergarten craft project. I made it clear what I wanted from you, and you gave me this?! Don’t tell me that was for me.
Me: …
God: …
Me: But, but, it was for you. We made it.
God: And I made you. Is unmaking you the only thing I can do?
Me: This is the best we can do, take it, please.
God: No.

I Drench My Couch with Tears (Me and David)

“I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.” — from Psalm 6

Me: David, maybe you shouldn’t have so many enemies.
David: That would be nice.
Me: Don’t you think it has anything to do with you?
David: …
Me: Everything to do with you?
David: …
Me: Isn’t it all your fault?
David: …
Me: It’s all my fault.
David: I drench my couch with tears.

Long for the Light Like a Marine Iguana Must

My family has a tradition of writing Christmas stories. Here’s one of mine from a few years ago.

Christmas in Cold Blood

Santa Fe Island in the Galapagos 4:48am GALT (GMT -6hrs)
An hour and five minutes before sunrise on December 25, 2011

The sun is rising.  It is still dark but he knows the sun is rising.  Soon the dark horizon will blue at her edge and the lowest stars will begin their daily dim.  The slow breath of his brethren presses against his flanks.  The very slow breath of his very cold brethren can not be heard, only felt under the roar of wave on rock that surrounds them.

He lies there motionless as the darkest hour begins to pass.  Tangled together with the rest in a heap on the rocky shoreline, he anticipates the blood that will flow.  Through his limbs it now trickles but soon it will course.

He understands the light.  He knows to wait.  This takes time.  He cannot rush it.  After all, he has no choice but to wait, but though he is old now, he has not yet grown accustomed to this morning ritual–this longing for first light.  It happens this way always, and yet it happens that he always fears in the final hour.  While all his brothers and sisters sleep in torpor he wakes and waits.  He understands the light, it’s effect on his cold blooded body, but he has also understood the darkness.  He had been created to miss this hour of cold in slumber as his snoozing family brethren always do, but for reasons he does not understand, he always wakes.  He experiences each morning trapped in his frozen body. Fully aware.  So he is the only one who knows that the sun is rising.

“It must” he thinks, “Or I will die.”

As he works through his regular morning anxiety, the earth spins, and the waves crash, and the light grows.  Below the sky’s black melts some blue, and just above the water-lined horizon an orange seeps upward–a very deep, reddish orange that sings in heraldry of great light.

“Aah.  At last!” he sighs to himself.  “It comes.”

But the wait is not over.  The sun is a slow one.  At least to him.  Though it is quite fast in the grand scheme of things, he perceives it as slow because he is trapped in the darkness and has been so all through the long night.  And in the darkest hour, frozen and alone in waiting for his cold death the grand scheme seems irrelevant.  The grand scheme is irrelevant to the one who lays dying.  And, though it happens this way every morning, he has never shaken those death thoughts.  How can he forget with his heart beating this slowly, with his lungs inflating this little, and yet, his mind so alert?

But he understands the light.  He recognizes its effect on his body and he waits for his frozen feet to be warmed.  He waits for the sun to activate his receded self.  The deep orange has now climbed a quarter of the sky.  The blue has taken the rest and only the brightest stars still shine through the veil of dawn.  Below the orange, there is more red and the wisps of clouds high above in the blue reflect back this redness in pink.

Already he is thawing, but the wait is not done.  How he wants to flick his tail, to grip the rock beneath his feet, to be unlocked! He aches for it to be done.  And then, it is.  The sun jumps over the horizon with a dazzle of rays that hit him with a jolt of pleasure.  Each one of his black scales squeals in delight.  He is the first to raise his head to meet the long expected light.  His brethren follow and form a chorus of attentive faces turned to greet the morning.  The long darkness is over and their bodies will soon spring into action.  His core of heart-beating, lung-expanding warmth spreads through him from the center.  The light penetrates him and awakens him fully.  His blood is warming.

Some time basking in the sun passes and his body is now sufficiently warmed for his charge.  He climbs out of the tangle, tromping on heads, shoulders and tails to the edge of the rocky cliff where they have spent the night.  His blood is coursing now.  He’s as hot as he can be–enlivened, fear gone, ready to do what needs to be done, which is to dive into the breakers to forage algae below.  The island is so scarce that the sea bed is the only place for food. Even though it means braving the tumult of waves, the jagged rock, and, worst of all, the freezing ocean current that chills him to the bone., just like the infinite night  He can only withstand ten minutes in the frigid depths before he must fight his way back to shore.  Somehow this cold is invigorating, while the cold of the darkness is frightening.

“I guess it’s because I know it’s right there.” He reflects as he looks over his shoulder at the shining sun and hoists himself back onto the rock.

He lies down spread eagle on the rocks to be re-warmed so he can digest his belly full of food.  He is reassured by the warmth on his spiny back.  He is safe underneath a blue sky lit by a great light.

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
  have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
  a light has dawned.”

Beloved, may you long for the Christ light this year as much as I imagine marine iguanas long for the dawn.  May you understand the Light of the World in your hearts, yes your blood pumping hearts.

Hope for the Darkness in Story Form

Here’s a short story I wrote.

John the Baptist Died in Hope

a story by Ben White imagined from Luke 7:18-25 and  Mark 6:14-29

Tonight there was a torch in the hall. So, as had become his custom, he lay his cheek against the cold stone floor of the cell to watch under the door. It was like his eyes needed the light that danced on the other side. Some nights there was no torch and he stayed in the dark. He slept and woke as if the two were the same.

There were no contours to the dim light of day. The grayness that penetrated this deep into this giant stone building came and went with no edge. He had carefully watched the smooth passage several times through his threshold crack, but as much as he tried, the growth and fade of day did not occur strongly enough to be conceived as action. The long interval did little more than remind him that he was still there in this prison.

What seemed like miles of stone above his head bore down on him. He was oppressed by the solidity of the structure over him. He longed for the desert sky, the swirls and shouts of all those starry friends, all together telling infinite stories. Their lights seemed loud in his eyes somehow. This torch was a whisper, but a welcome one. He would listen to what she danced to say. He pressed his forehead against the thick wood of the door and opened wide his left eye — enough to feel the draft of the hall on the sensitive wet skin inside his eyelid. Trying not to blink too much he watched every moment of the torch’s burning. The crack did not give him an angle to see her directly so it was her echo only that he watched. In his mind’s eye, he saw her gripped maybe by a bolt in the wall, but free to sway and shutter in her fireyness, fixed but moving, circumscribed but still not safe, she bounced off the stones of the wall and floor, cutting jagged shadows now toward him then away.

He could not figure out why the passage was lit only some nights and not all. Perhaps the servant boy was negligent most of the time? The presence of light seemed to mean nothing consistently. Nothing always happened in the light. A lit hall could yield a jingling tromp of soldiers, or not. A visitor or not. A new prisoner in the cell next to him, or not. The last neighbor had left days ago and despite his best efforts, he had not gotten him to answer, not even to his loudest whisper. He sang to him anyway, as he had sung to the stars and snakes in the desert those many nights alone.

He laughed now at how he used to curse the sun for being too hot at noon, or being too absent at midnight. When you live alone that long, you need someone with whom you can squabble. He loved to hate the sun, but now, he would do anything to feel the familiar sting of sweat in his eyes. Not enough water or food to sweat down here. He knew he wouldn’t last. He had begun to hope that Herod would kill him, but he wouldn’t admit that to himself.

As the light approached and retreated from his single eye, he remembered the big comings and goings of his life. There were the angels, of course. They came to his family when he was a baby, but went so long ago. He had no memory of them really, but for his parents’ stories. His father still had the writing tablet on which he had written, “His name is John.” In his father’s old age, it was the only story he told. God bless him. He was still alive, somehow, at least he had heard news not long before he had been put in this place that, yes, Zachariah of Bethzaith was among the living. His mother was gone, she had never really recovered from his own leaving, but Elizabeth lived a good many years after he left home.

He was her baby boy, her truest joy, the one God had given her. There was no bitterness in her grief, but he felt it nonetheless, stretching through the valleys and over the hills, to the roofless home God had called him to there by the Jordan. She knew he had to go; she did not protest. Her promise was true, but how could she let him go, the baby who leapt for joy in her belly? He felt the pain of her goodbye, smiling tears and too many blessings. He was young. Too young, but just young enough to go to the wilderness with nothing but longing.  He didn’t know it at fifteen, but someone had to become the one they now called the Baptizer. And then all the people who began coming to him in the Jordan! They needed the fire he had kindled inside him over years of cold desert nights. He knew the words of the prophets of old like they were his, and some of them became his as much as theirs. The people listened. They heard God in his voice.

He hadn’t been alone for all those years. People came to him in the desert. Most came and went, but some stayed. Young men, 18, 16, 15. Men just like him, who felt the longing stronger than those who came just to be baptized. They built huts, but John refused to sleep in them. He needed to sing to the stars, quieter now, because in their presence, privacy had begun to matter. Community was the reward of his success as a prophet, but it cost him the naked joy of unbridled midnight songs. He kept his singing to himself, until desperate, there in the cell, he coaxed his silent neighbor with as many hymns as he could remember to no avail.

His light continued to lunge and lean away. He could tell by her sputtering that she would not last long. In preparation for the darkness, he turned his mind to Jesus. The One who had come to take away the sins of the world, the One for whom John was born, and for whom Baby John had leapt. Of course he couldn’t remember it, but he had done more conscious leaping since. His own insides leapt when God told him, that it was him, Jesus, Mary’s son, for whom he had been longing all those years. John chuckled, He wasn’t even wearing sandals when he showed up that day to be baptized–when he came “to fulfill all righteousness,” he said. His objection was mostly for show. It was clear to him that God’s lamb would humble himself like this, and then God made it clear to everyone who was there. Heaven opened up, brighter than any star, and they heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Nonetheless, he felt his mother’s pain when he told his disciples to go and follow Jesus. “He must increase but I must decrease.” That’s what he told the Pharisees when they came to him at Aenon near Salim, and he still knew it was the right thing to say, but the loss was real. How long had those men stayed with him? Jonathan, Gideon and Samson; the judges; Simeon, John, the younger, Seth and Eliel. They were all following Jesus now. He didn’t even want them to stay when they first came, but they had broken his resistance. They had penetrated his solitude. How many times must I be made and unmade, Lord?

He feared this was the last time. Herod would let him rot in this cell, and it wouldn’t take forever for his body to do so. He tried to accept that, but regret crept into his confidence. When he had shouted those words at Herod about his brother’s wife he felt nothing but confidence. That charlatan! King of the Jews?  Leave your Mediterranean morality across the sea. “It is not lawful for you to have her,” he said. And he was right, but did he have to say it? Was this how God wanted it all to end?

But “the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” John said that himself. Did he believe it? Did he believe in the Son? Is this the life he was meant to see? In the darkness, it was hard to see anything clearly. Jesus had not done what John had expected. He went back to Galilee. He said little of Herod. He spoke almost nothing of the Romans. It seemed like he didn’t care. When would Israel be delivered, and how in the world would this deliverer ever deliver them?

But tonight, with the torch dancing in his eyes, he was swinging away from his questions. He was even a little embarrassed that he had sent that message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Not long after he was arrested he got the chance to send word. The torch was lit one night and it happened to mean visitors–for him. Jonathan and Simeon, his old friends, had come to see him.  Simeon’s father was not Jewish, a Roman Guard Commander in Joppa, but his Father’s brother, a man named Atilius, was a guard in the prison. It was Atilius who had arranged for his nephew, Simeon, to come with Jonathan.

They couldn’t stay long. Atilius stood guard at the door and preferred not to be seen. Their chance of discovery was low, but not impossible. At that point in his captivity, John’s light-longing desperation had not yet grown to the point where he watched under the door when the torch was lit, but he did hear the shuffle of their feet when they came. He was frightened when the bar of light beneath his door didn’t flicker with shadows of passing feet, but was steadily eclipsed by people standing on the other side.

And then the click of the lock.

When Jonathan and Simeon came into the cell the fear subsided only when they spoke. They were faceless silhouettes and his eyes hadn’t focused on anything for too long. “Master!” They said in unison, and they hugged him in a clump in his corner. What had he mastered, though? They told him of all the things Jesus was doing. The healings, the signs and wonders, but also the things he had said. John had heard tell of some of these things too, when he was free.

Forgiveness of sins? Breaking the Sabbath? “Could such a man really be the One?” Jonathan asked. There was an urgency in his voice. John wondered too, even worried. Atilius rapped the door three times. Their conversation was over.

“You will ask him,” John said. He stood feebly on his weakened knees, “Send this message to Jesus the Nazarene, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” And they were gone.

That could have been months ago. How could he tell? However long it had been, that question had eaten a hollowness in him that only the thought of Jesus could fill. Only the warmth of that light from heaven by the Jordan could satisfy this hunger, this need, this lack… The joy that was completed in that task was overwhelming in the moment, but had faded to a glimmer in the dark.

“Of course, he is the one,” he whispered aloud to the light in the hall. At that very moment she went out. Her dance was done and with her went some of his hope. “Of course he is the one,” he repeated to the darkness, and immediately it felt less true.

Several hours later, maybe, he awoke to footsteps in the hall. He had slept with his face still pressed against the wood of the door. He rubbed his forehead and felt the wood’s ridges printed in his skin. He smiled about that, eyes closed as he greeted whoever it was that was opening his door. “John the Baptizer, your time has come.” It was Atilius. He walked John by the arm down the hall and up a flight of shallow stairs. John stumbled, but Atilius’ strong arm held him up, almost gently. Sensing compassion, John looked the soldier in the face, and there were tears in his eyes. As he led him around a corner and into a larger room where other soldiers were waiting, he whispered in John’s ear. This message from Simeon your disciple, from Jesus the Nazarene.

“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Then Atilius added his own “I’m sorry.”

Those who waited for John took him from Atilius without a shred of gentleness. As they tied his hands behind his back, a man sharpened an axe. John chuckled. Fitting that they would use an axe.