Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: Imagination

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.

Saving our Imaginations from Fortnite

I am reading A Wrinkle in Time to my son, Oliver, who is 7 years old. One of my goals is to teach him to use and develop his imagination. I actually stop as we’re reading to encourage him to be still and actively imagine what he’s hearing. It’s hard for him to not fidget with something or even be drawn to other books and images in his room. I remind him, “We’re being still and practicing seeing the story in our minds. What does Calvin look like?” (I’m really glad he hasn’t seen the movie). On our family vacation this summer we listened to the Chronicles of Narnia in the car and he claimed to be able to read his book about dragons and listen to the story on the car speakers at the same time.

I think I’m a bit like Oliver sometimes. Paying attention is a difficult task. I spend a lot of time on my computer and always have way too many tabs open in Chrome. I am prone to popping between tasks and too often lack the stillness for the clarity of thought I desire. I want to listen to God and engage my own imagination in any number of creative tasks, but I am, as I think most people are, chronically distracted.

fortnite and coopted imaginationA big new distraction the gaming industry recently cooked up is Fortnite. It’s a shooting game where players skydive onto an island and gather resources to kill each other. Some kind of plasma storm forces them into a tighter and tighter circle and they can build platforms and ramps out of the resources they gather (that’s the “fort” part I think).

I found out about Fortnite through my nephews earlier this year but when I heard this incredible episode of On the Media about Twitch, the social media platform for gamers, I took a deep dive to find out why and how so many people are interested. If you are an elementary school kid like Oliver it is one of the top topics of conversation. Millions of people watch professional gamers play this game. There are tournaments with prizes in the millions. The most famous professional gamer in the United States is Ninja AKA Tyler Blevins. He reportedly earns a million dollars a month. He got really, really famous when, in April of this year, he played with Drake. Seven million people have watched the YouTube video of their game so far.

I want to save my son’s imagination from Fortnite. Imagining violence is the biggest reason. I don’t want him to be desensitized to violence by repeated cartoonish head shots and rocket explosions. I don’t want him to dream about how to kill anyone, even if only in a game, but it’s more than that–I fear the overwhelming swell of enthusiasm for this game will steal his imagination. Instead of imagining anything, he can see it all. It’s loud; it’s fast; and everybody loves it. He loves it and he has never even played it. It IS indeed creative, but too complete, I guess. There’s not much room for his brain to do anything because it has all been done for him. The artist who made Fortnite are not giving an invitation into anything. They are as 20th century writer George MacDonald said in his essay, “The Fantastic Imagination“, writing “THIS IS A HORSE” on their art (and on our minds).

Don’t mess with this dude, George MacDonald

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

As admirable as the creatives responsible for Fortnite are (I love their worldwide campaign with the llamas), the main force behind Fortnite is not art but business. Companies are going to great lengths to tap the veins of a generations’ desires as they have with Fortnite. But instead of awakening something in their imaginations, they feed us back their desire like a soon to be foie gras duck. If they find something we want, they slap a “THIS IS A HORSE” label on it and shove it down our throats in every conceivable medium. They took our dreams, made them very real, and then edged out the competition by dominating our imaginations for as long as possible.

Imagination is key to being a Christian. The cooperation of mind and heart with God takes contemplation, stillness and creativity. It is not always so clear what God might do next and we who are committed to following that next thing must have unclaimed space in our heads for the project. Other things crowd it too–worries, earning a living, etc.–but Fortnite is the most recent in a string of increasingly demanding and enticing competitors for our hopes and dreams. You might have a future in professional gaming, son! Maybe Fortnite is your ticket to the big time! Lord, save us.

Lord give us space, rest and real hope. Awaken us to what is already in us and where you already are. Stoke our imaginations and make something new. 

 

 

Swimming Under Niagara Falls with Jesus

At the Lent retreat this weekend we were led to practice prayer of imagination. Here’s a story I wrote about my experience:

I’m on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes tourist into the clouds at the base of Niagara Falls. If the light is right, there are rainbows everywhere. The light wasn’t right. It was a gray day. I am seven years old and not too old to pout a little. But I am still captivated by the thundering water. Who wouldn’t be?

Everyone is wearing Maid of the Mist branded blue ponchos. As we motor out toward the thunder I lean against a familiar pair of jeans. I look down at the wet deck of the boat and I am startled by the fact that the shoes on these legs are wrong. I jump back and I can’t meet the eyes on the face of the strange man looking down at me. I think he smiles but I’m swiveling away to find my Dad who is not the guy in these jeans. Dad is three feet behind me. He saw the whole thing. He widens his eyes to say, “Here I am.” I retreat to the correct jeans for a moment.

But now Jesus’ story from Matthew 19:13-15 is at play here too. I’m reading the account of Jesus telling the disciples to “Let the little children come to me.” The guide for my prayer retreat asks, “What do you see? … People’s legs?”

“Yes,” my imagination answers with the flashing memory of those mistaken pants. And now I’m on the Maid of the Mist jostling on deck to get close to Jesus. I’m on a pillow breathing deeply, swaying a little in Circle of Hope’s building in Fishtown, but I’m on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls thinking, “Jesus is here.”

My Dad gives me a flip of his hand on the back of my blond head, suggestively flinging me forward through the legs in front of me. “Go,” he says silently, and I trust him. I weave past the wrong jeans, also sandals, bare skin, skirts and shorts. I get to the prow of the boat and Jesus isn’t here. The magnetism I feel in the crowd is focused on the falls so I figure he must be there. I strip off my Maid of the Mist branded blue poncho and climb up onto the first rail. I look over my shoulder. Dad is three or four rows back giving me a smile and a wave. He switches to a thumbs up. I grin back. With one foot up now on the top rail, I wait one more moment so as not to be surprised by the roll of the water beneath the boat and slip. When the time is right I duck out of my Donald Duck T-Shirt and dive off the boat and into the churn below.

Underwater, I don’t need to breath so I can dedicate my full attention without limitation to getting behind the waterfall. That must be where Jesus is. My thinking is I have to go really deep–way down deep below the power, and the clouds, even below the current that penetrates the surface. So down I go until I think this must be deep enough. I back up like a cartoon rearing to run and dart at the curtain of current that is still there this far down, but hopefully weak enough to penetrate. But it tumbles me back like a crashing wave. After tumbling backward I try again with the same result. Again and again, but it’s always the same.

Back on my pillow in Fishtown my sway has a gentle tumble to it. Again and again, head nodding in a gentle whip remembering summers at Huntington Beach getting tossed by the surf and loving it. But I don’t love this.

“Why is it always like this?” I cry in a soundless underwater shout. “Why are you so hard to get to, Jesus?! You’re supposed to be here.”

I’m still in the tumble and sway in Fishtown. “How does this story end? How does this little child get to Jesus?”

I slowly stop my subtle pillow dancing and I am still. And the Niagara river is suddenly still as well. Turning away from the tumbling current, I look up. The surface of the water, far above me is now calm and I can see by the gilding around the Maid of the Mist’s silhouette that the sun has begun to shine. I look over my shoulder at the impassable barrier, then back up to the boat eclipse. I am still in the water, floating in the depths without effort. My eyes fall slowly from the surface tracing the steady fade from a blue that’s almost white to a deep, deep blue at my eye level. I stare into this darkness, “How does it end?”

classic 70's snorkel maskThen something touches my shoulder and I wiggle away. Kicking madly toward the surface in fear, I look down and there is Jesus waving to me in the deep blue. He’s wearing one of those snorkel masks that’s just an oval from the 70’s, big fins on his feet, and a speedo. Yes, with the classic hippie hair and beard, but also hair all over his body. I swim down toward him and he darts away, though not too far this time. He lets me catch him and now it’s my turn to be pursued. We circle round beneath the Maid of the Mist ascending through the shades of blue and I am so happy. Jesus and I are playing tag beneath the Maid of the Mist in the Niagara River. “And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”