On Heroes (Hebrews Narratives)

"By faith... others experienced mockings and scourgings..." I once met a man who was hog-tied and hung from a tree.  His elders dipped him in the river and beat him with a cane.  They demanded that he recant, and if he didn't they'd tie a millstone to his feet, baptize him once and for all.  He held to his confession so the accusers left him for dead, left him as easy pickings for the hyenas.  If you ask him his story, he'll tell you of faithfulness.  Faith is a river, he'll say.

"...yes, also chains and imprisonment..."

He was a long-haired hippy, a child of the earth with a clear understanding of redemption theology.  He smuggled bibles into the eastern block back before the wall came tumbling down.  He was arrested, threatened under a heat lamp, burned with cigarette butts.  His wife, a twenty year old  peace-child, believed herself to be widowed on more than one occasion.  If you ask them their story, they'll tell you of white-hot faithfulness.

"...They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword..."

By now, we've all seen the video footage.  Bearded man.  Boot knife or scimitar. Kneeling believer commanded to recant.  Heads roll.  You know that story.  Faith runs red, like spilled blood.

There is a quieter type of belief, one not splashed across the pages of books or websites.  It's accused, beaten, jailed, and ultimately put to the sword.  There are workers in these fields who can't blog, tweet, or update statuses for security reasons, but they hang in the war zones, living out lives of relative obscurity.

They are my heroes.

**All quotes taken from Hebrews 11:32-39

Perspectives: A Sermon From the Mount, Part 4 (alternatively titled “Ink”)

*For Parts 1-3, click here. This morning I sit on the edge of metaphorical mountain waiting to hear the words of the man I call my teacher.  It is early morning, so I am ready with my cup of coffee.  The automatic drip started this morning before a rooster could crow once much less thrice.  Last night after our dinner date, after paying the baby sitter, after scanning the nightly news, I told the coffee pot to be ready.  The auto-drip function rarely lets me down.

Last night was good life.  Amber and I talked about Jesus, this rebel that now stands poised on the pages of the cliff of Matthew 5.  We ran into Mel and her husband at the restaurant.  Those two... they claim ragamuffin status and I believe them.  They know the language of grace.  They have proven themselves ready to love us, ragged as we can be from time to time.  The girls talked about their tattoos, laughing and calling them “tats,” and “tatties,” and “ink.”  The colors are amazing I must admit.

After we left the restaurant, we walked across the street to the independent book seller, the one brimming over with sounds of espresso and gypsy music.  She read poetry to me.  It was good, thick poetry, the kind that makes other poets well up.  I am not another poet but her welling made me happy.  The college couples sitting at the coffee bar watched us over the top of the children’s book rack as if to say, “I wonder what we’ll be like when we are their age.”  They followed us with their eyes, then giggled.  It was a good night.

And now, in this early morning, I sit, Jesus waiting to raise me with his words.  The stewed chicken and latte night cap steams thick in my memory.  Lines from spent poems circle like vultures threatening to pick apart a dead thing not yet begun.  The couples, those young idealists, spring to mind, all drinking coffee and talking about social justice.  I can hear their cups clinking.

My eyes are too heavy and so I inhale a deep breath of coffee steam and stare at the words.

Unexpectedly, he stares back.

And with the eyes of a mad artist willing to blaze bold art across an unseen canvas he looks at me as if to say, “the needle’s gonna hurt, boy.”  And then, he holds my hand with all the grace I could ever want and stares through my skin to where the ink will leave a permanent stain and he carves,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Perspectives: A Sermon From the Mount, Part 3

*For Parts 1 and 2, click here. It is an unnatural feeling, this nerve bristling, the bubbling up at the end of my skin.  Before the shame, I used to look into my wash basin, marveling at the face that had been knit for me.  Now, my nose is bulbous and swollen. I miss my nose more than my faith.

I stand apart from this crowd—a crowd of former respect. They used to seek me out and ask me questions about the scriptures. They followed my lead on the practicalities of pure living, of living by the code. They knew I held an open hand to the poor, blessed as I was. But today, I respect their well-founded fear and stand a healthy span away. I can feel their judging eyes.

When the doctor saw my thickening skin and the maddening look in my eyes, he breathed the words “leprosy” and the people collectively whispered “sinner.” Some said that my piety had been seen as idolatry in the eyes of God. Some said I must have obtained my wealth by thievery or cunning words. Mostly, though, the crowds accused me of sleeping with the same prostitutes that are waiting for this rebel-healer to speak. There are so many prostitutes in this crowd.

The lepers say that this teacher’s words are salve and salvation, and though I am not convinced, I hope. The law has failed me. The doctors have failed me. My family and wealth fled. Now I own only lepers’ rags and some tattered hope. Soon, I will pass away and my clothes will be burned in accordance with the laws of the Pharisees. Will hope remain?

Jesus is surveying the crowd, now.  He is slowly scanning, and I know that look. It is the look of the doctor ready to pronounce a terminal disease. But then, he turns to me and the left side of his lips curls into a sly half-smile. His eyes are knowing and he reminds me of my list of former accomplishments: the Sabbath rest, the scripture recitation, the unleavened-ness of it all. The right side of his mouth curls mirror-image and his spirit whispers to mine, “go and sin no more.”

Then, with the joy of a king handing an appointment to his closest of friends, he stretches an invisible scepter to my heart and his voice explodes across the valley,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven."

Perspectives: A Sermon from the Mount, Part 2

*Another re-posting from a series I wrote for Amber last year.  Part 1 here. It was all that Daniel could talk about—this man, who was at the pass today.  Last night, when he climbed into my lap, when he stretched out his five-year old legs, when he smiled and said “Jesus is camping by the mountain,” I could feel joy sucking the breath from his ribs.  This man talked to children, Daniel told me.  “Sometimes,” he said, “Jesus will stop, right there in the market, find one of us, and whisper ‘go’ and we’ll race to the end of the road.”  He laughed and told me, “Jesus never wins.”

So, when I stared at all hope sitting in my lap, I returned his toothy grin and said, “want to go?” Daniel squealed, jumped, and ran circles around the room.  As a man of little means, time is the only present I can afford.

And now I stand shoulder to shoulder with this crowd of people.  I did not expect such support for a rebel teacher whose followers are children, moneyless men, and lepers.  I heard that the teachers in the synagogue want to kill him.  But then again, the teachers always hold tight to rules and stones.  They are fond of cursing and throwing, and it is a wonder that they have never cast the first stone at me.  I do not love their rules.  After all, if the law prevents me from filling Daniel's belly with stolen bread, it is the law that threatens my son's life.  I understand this.  Wealthy lawyers do not.

Daniel is hopping up and down, trying to steal a glimpse.  I would let him keep hopping because it’s a joyful, one-legged kind, but the man standing next to me is out of place and I do not trust him.  I reach down and hook Daniel under the shoulders, hoisting him onto my own.  He tussles my hair and whispers excitement, saying, “I see him, I see him, Daddy.”  And so do I.  In that moment, Jesus' eyes are locked on John’s—not the one who follows him, but the one wearing the leper’s robes.  The one who used to be devout.  We all know his story.

Slowly he turns to face us, smiling first at the lame and crippled, then at the beggars jingling their copper coins.  He follows the sea of weak and wounded, until he finds me, a thief.  He locks me inside of himself, and with the glinting eyes of a father offering his son a cup of cold water, he holds out his hand and says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Perspective: A Sermon From the Mount, Part 1

I'm reposting a bit I wrote for Amber last year. I felt the need to remind myself of some things.

It is best to use discretion when taking notes on a potential rebellion, so I stand slump-shouldered next to the most average looking man I can find. There are always rules to be followed, and I carefully draw my limbs inward so as not to rub shoulders with the common cold carriers or the prostitutes around me. There are so many prostitutes.

A young boy stands beside me, dirty and smelly. His shirt is reduced to rags. He jumps up and down, hoping to see his hometown hero. His father, laughing at all the efforts of a five-year old, reaches under the boy’s shoulders and hoists him atop his own. The boy sees the target of his affection now, and his face radiates joy that comes only from one unacquainted with the law.

Give him time. He will see the futility of un-burdened joy.

At thirty-two, I understand much that the crowd does not. Purity has a price; discipline is godliness in fact; mercy and law are intertwined. To see, we must do. It is not enough to sit atop a father’s shoulders and radiate. Understanding this has made me successful. A Pharisee, I mete out justice to many in this crowd on a regular basis. I have esteem and respect. They do not.

These are the people of rebellion: people discontent with the practice of purity; people willing to negotiate affections to make a living; lepers who do not respect proximity. They say they want “healing” but are unwilling to sacrifice. These people cannot know God. And I, the one who drew this short-straw note-taking assignment, stand the only worthy one among them. A true rabbi would not choose this crowd.

The cripples occupy the front row, and more are being carried forward by the minute. Directly behind them stand the prostitutes and tax collectors. I see the pan handler who sits outside of my house. He is there with the other poor and needy. And, as usual, he continues to jingle that blasted cup of copper coins. I want to tell him--jingling is not magnetic; it will not attract more.

John is standing off to the side—not the one called "disciple," but the formerly devout one who is now leprous. His eyes, the only part of his body not covered in leper’s garb, are fixed on the thirteen men.

Jesus stands and the masses fall pin-drop silent. His eyes begin to pick the crowd apart, darting from heart to heart. He is magnetic and his positive meets my negative and our gazes lock. And with the knowing eyes of my mother, he invades me, and his voice thunders wrath:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”

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