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Archive for the ‘stories’ Category

The last time I saw The Nutcracker was December of 2007.  I was delighted with the production, and it unexpectedly brought back memories, which I blogged about at the time.  Here’s what I wrote:

…I recollected a part of myself yesterday afternoon, while sitting in a darkened theater watching a splendid production of the ballet, The Nutcracker.  An especially lovely segment screamed for applause, and I began it…and there she was.  Right beside me, grinning with delight at the magic of the performance and with satisfaction at being “old trigger wrist”–her cupped hands like gunshots echoing.  Mom. Except of course she wasn’t there, couldn’t be there.   (more…)

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His eyelids, suddenly heavy, fell shut. Inside his mind, he felt a thick curtain fall, muffling the sound around him. My sins…are forgiven. Forgiven? Wiped out? In stunning succession, images whirled past his mind’s eye: a willful boy, a prideful young man, a demanding friend, an angry husband, a harsh father. Then the accident, and bitterness cloaking the will, the pride, the harsh anger, holding it all in to fester and turn to despair. My sins, yes.

All at once he noticed the quiet in the room, not a peaceful stillness, but a tense waiting, underscored with a buzz of murmuring voices, a kind of hissing disapproval. What were they waiting for, he wondered? Was he supposed to speak, to testify?

He opened his eyes, eager now to look at that Face again, and to heard the Voice. But the Face was gone. Instead, far above, the four friends still hung over the roof hole, staring and silent, seeming…sad. Disappointed.

Oh! They think their effort was for nothing! But He knew what I needed. Forgiveness. Yes. I can go home in peace now. All is well.

Then from somewhere over his head he heard it again, that One who had spoken forgiveness to him. “Why are you thinking these things?”

He started, straining his eye balls to find the Face. Was He talking to me? Does He know my thoughts? Why were they wrong?

“Which is easier?” the Voice continued. “To say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk home’?” No one answered Him. Huh. That’s a good question. Both are impossible, I’d say. But…He did forgive me, I’m sure of it. I feel it. So then…

The Voice was still speaking, “But so you know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins…”

The Face swam into his sight again, smiling. Gentle hands moved purposefully near his waist. The same calm, commanding Voice spoke again. “Go on. Get up on your feet, take your mat and go home now.” The Man glanced up at the four gaping friends with a last smile and nod, then he apparently moved away.

The paralyzed man lay still, but the stillness was different now, he could sense it. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs, once…twice…three times. Lord, I believe, he thought.

And he sat up.

At once there was a new murmur of amazement. But no one moved. The anticipation hung as heavy in the air as smoke in a windowless room.

He continued to breathe, slow and deep. He noticed that the straps hung loose. The Man had untied them for him. Then, with careful deliberation, he bent his knees. Smiling, he braced himself with his arms, and clambered to his feet, a little stiff, but standing nonetheless.

Now he was grinning, and above him he could hear laughter and clapping, then the scurry of feet as his friends scrambled down the ladder from the roof.

Bending down, he grasped the edge of the pallet which had seemed a prison. He lifted it with one hand and straightened again, caught between giddy laughter and sudden tears.

He took one step, then two, and the crowd’s amazed murmur swelled to cheering and shouting. “Hallelu-Yah! Praise to the Almighty One! He has done great things!”

He continued to move, with more confidence now, and found himself face to face with the Stranger, who just smiled. His own eyes watery, he opened his mouth to say, Thank you. But no sound came. Even so, it seemed the Man could read the gratitude in his eyes. Nodding once more, He turned towards the door. Four scruffy men had muscled through the crowd and stood there now, silently joyful.

The man who had been paralyzed, still dragging the useless mat, walked toward them. And then all five friends moved slowly through the reverent crowd who parted to watch them go, walking toward the sunset with strong and steady tread.

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He drowsed again in the heat, the jumbled voices of a crowd acting like so many bees, droning him to sleep. Then he was jolted by a sudden upward movement. He opened his eyes to see his lifeless feet dangling below him as the cot was hauled upwards…were they carrying him up a ladder? Then the cot straightened a bit, the sky reappeared and he both saw and heard that ropes were being used to raise him off the ground. But why?

The cot made slow, jerking progress, punctuated by grunts and muttered, “Careful there! Try to keep him level.”

Then their faces came in view again, hauling on ropes, hand over hand, and they were coming closer. No, he was coming closer. With a last groaning effort, they grabbed his bed and dragged it onto the…roof? He lay still, and listened to his friends panting, gasping for breath. Where were they? Why this heroism? How could this help? He squeezed his eyes shut against the glare of sun beating down. It felt even hotter up here than on the ground.

“All right. Are you ready?” They murmured assent to each other, as if bracing themselves for some more herculean task. What in the world–? They pushed him, bed and all, along the level surface.

And all at once his stomach seemed to drop, and then his head caught up. He cried out in panic–had they pushed him too far? Was he going to fall off this roof now and finish the job? But no. He’d hardly had time to think this was the end, when he felt his progress slow. They were lowering him now, more smoothly than they’d lifted him.

Somewhere below he was aware of a commotion–yelling. Someone was upset about something. “What do you think you’re doing?? My roof!!” Some other voices were talking all at once, and a few seemed to be laughing. Were they laughing at him?

He realized that the sun’s harsh kiss was gone. The light against his closed lids felt cooler, dimmer. He blinked open his eyes, still squinting out of habit. Four little boys looked back at him…

No! He almost burst out laughing himself. It was his four friends, looking through a window at him. They were leaning out and…oh. It was the roof. They’d cut a hole, and he was looking straight up at them.

Suddenly his view was cut off by a single face, quite close to him, which stared into his intently. Was this the owner? Would he be blamed now for the damages? How fitting–damaged goods himself, and now he’d be scolded for destroying something else. How much more do I have to bear? Will they throw me in jail to rot? Was this their plan to get rid of me once and for all? O God, why couldn’t I just have died long ago? Why was I ever born? Life is nothing but pain and trouble.

Slowly his eyes refocused–a weathered face, warm eyes, steady, understanding…knowing. Too much. They looked through him. And then–the eyes smiled. The silent man turned his head and looked up, up at the four anxious faces who still waited breathlessly above him. He seemed to nod, as if he agreed with some unspoken plea. Then the knowing eyes turned back to his own.

Though he lay helpless and still, his heart began to pound as if he’d scaled the wall himself and lowered his own broken body by a rope with his own once-strong hands. He didn’t know what would happen next–what could happen? And yet he was afraid.

Unhurried, quiet, the stranger spoke. His voice, though low, was pitched to carry to the crowd around him, and it resonated with authority. “Your sins are forgiven,” he said.

 

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(see Luke 5:17-26)

The view was unvarying: cloudless white-hot sky above him, against which he closed his eyes most of the time. If he turned his head a tiny bit to right or left, he could see the back of a head and the top of a shoulder. If he strained his eyes up and back to either side he’d see grim faces, upside down. Four men, two on either side, trudged doggedly forward, while he lay still, strapped in place.

They were grim because it was hot, heavy work, and they’d been walking since sunrise. They were dogged because they were determined to get him to his destination. And he lay still, not because he was strapped down, but because he could not will his limbs to move. Nor could he say or do anything to stop these four. Their minds were made up. This was their last hope.

He had given up hope long since. For years, the five of them had worked merrily together at their trade. They’d laughed together, sweating in the heat. They’d poured the wine at each others’ weddings, blessed each others’ children, built each others’ homes, adding on rooms as their families grew. And then it happened. The freak accident that left one of them helpless, paralyzed, useless. The others pitched in to support his family, they consulted physicians, took him to healing springs, massaged his limbs, cheered him or chided him at need.

Meanwhile the paralyzed man grew more and more bitter, watching his friends going on with their lives–loving wife, holding child, wielding chisel. They worked without him. In time he didn’t think he liked them any more. He believed he hated them.

But now here he was, feeling like a sacrifice being carried to the altar against its will. They’d strapped him to the cot so he wouldn’t fall off if they stumbled. They’d explained that this was absolutely the last time they’d try to help him…but they’d said that before, too.

“This Man…He works miracles. He does. We’ve seen Him. If anyone can heal you, it will be Him. We just have to get you to Him. He’s in Galilee right now, so let’s go, OK?”

OK? What choice does a paralyzed man have? What can he do by his own will? He stared silently into space as they got him ready.

His wife kissed him good-bye. “I’m praying, ” she whispered.

And what will happen when nothing happens? he thought. Maybe they’d just leave him by the side of the road some-where, to choke to death on the dust.

He must have dozed for a time. When he awoke, they’d stopped. A mutter of urgent words washed over him. The men hissed at each other.

“We can’t do that! Are you crazy?”

“Well, what do you suggest?”

“We’ve come too far to stop now.”

“There’s no other way in–the crowd is already five deep outside the door. The courtyard is packed.”

“Is there a ladder? What about a rope?”

Ladder? Rope? What were they talking about? He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again. Why waste his breath? They would do whatever they chose. They’d long ago stopped asking his permission or even his opinion. He felt more than ever like a piece of meat, and not kosher either–just an unclean, useless lump, barely alive.

 

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I really wasn’t prepared.

Five thousand people were prepared for this event, to some extent.  Obviously their preparations had varied.  Some were taking it all in stride, others were in pain.  Some seemed shocked, others stoic.  Some kept an even pace and others limped along.

But I was unprepared.  I didn’t have to do anything.  The half-marathon route included a section which went right down the cross street which is two houses from my front door.  All I had to do was walk to the corner and clap.  There were others there on the opposite corner.  They cheered and shouted encouragement.  But at first I only clapped.

Because I was unprepared.  I had not expected the wave of emotion I felt when I saw the determined faces.  When I thought about having run ten and a half miles. (I would cry harder if you told me that I had to run one mile…)  I was unprepared and so I had to walk back home and get a tissue.  After that, I clapped and wiped my eyes and clapped some more.

Some runners, ear buds in place, eyes fixed ahead, didn’t acknowledge any of us. Others smiles or waved.  A few verbally thanked us for being out there.

Straining to give birth, struggling to learn, striving to achieve…we all need encouragement, and we can all be encouragers.  We’re in the streets and on the sidelines all at once.  Sometimes we’re called to coax or coach a friend over a rocky bit of ground. At another time we may be grieving with a comrade over their spouse whose race ended too soon. Or we may find ourselves holding the hand of a runner who is near the finish line, encouraging them to finish well…

For all this, we should be prepared.  We are all needed.

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I confessed to my friend Jon last week that the very brief parables of Jesus, about the treasure hid in a field and the pearl of great price, don’t seem to me to make much sense if you try to think about them logically.  I had wrestled with the limitations of parables a couple of years ago, and decided that as metaphors for giving up everything in order to have the Kingdom of God, these extremely brief statements work.  I guess.  It’s just that my mind keeps on asking more hard questions:  Whose treasure was  in the field?  Are there ethical concerns there?  Did the merchant pay fair market value for the pearl?  If he had to give up all he owned in order to purchase it, I picture him standing there with nothing but the pearl, thinking, “Now what?”

It reminded me of the auction scene in Oklahoma!, where the cowboy Curly sells his gun and his horse in order to keep Jud Fry from winning Laurey’s picnic hamper.  At the end of the night, all he has is the hamper…and Laurey.  And that seems to be enough.  As I continued to think about the foolishness of this picture, a new thought began to form in my mind.  I wonder if this is what Jesus intended all along.  Here’s my parable remix:

Shlomo the merchant walked quickly through the marketplace.  His rapid pace and his impressive bearing both hurried lesser folks out of his way. But he could always hear the whispers in his wake, as if the breeze he created with his robes stirred up the old rumors every time.

Such a prosperous man, nu?  Well he may appear that way…but what I’ve heard is that, his parents…?  They were slaves.  No, it’s truth!  As I live and breathe…

Outwardly serene, even cold, the merchant heaved an inward sigh.  Yes, his poor parents: they worked to earn their own freedom, then slaved on to earn his…and to pay for him to be educated in Greek, Hebrew and Latin. “Fools,” they were called. Lavishing the fruit of so many years’ hardship on their only child.  But they ignored those voices.  Then it was time to apprentice him to a trade, another expense.   Shlomo was intended to be a jeweler, a craftsman in gold, silver and precious gems.  Early on it was obvious he had the eye: keen and discerning, seeing every flaw in every stone.   He could have made diadems for princes, become a legend of artistry.  But Shlomo knew one thing:  never would he earn enough to buy one of the gorgeous pieces that he could make for kings.  Nor would he be able to set his parents in the kind of comfort they deserved.

So, quietly, he began to horde every shekel and to talk in corners with other craftsmen.  Would you like to sell your work in other cities?  Would you like someone to get you better quality stones?  When his apprenticeship ended, he astonished his master and his family by announcing an entirely new profession.

Shlomo chuckled to himself, remember their reaction. “What are you thinking? You’re a fool!  You can’t just decide to become what you are not…”

But foolish or not, he set out on his first buying trip.  And returned successful. And went again.  He prospered, in fact.  His reputation grew, and more and more those who knew of Shlomo would buy gems only from him.  Craftsmen with fine work to sell would sidle up to him, hoping to please him with their wares enough that he would condescend to buy from them…and resell at a profit to himself.

His wealth increased alongside his fame.  His parents lived, and died, in luxurys they never would have dreamed of for themselves.  But Shlomo still pressed on, driven to achieve something that no one could quite put a finger on.  It was obvious that he was not content.  But what more could he possibly want?

Shlomo knew what he wanted.  What he dreamed of, night after restless night. He wanted to find and possess a single blood-red gem without a flaw.  He’d heard street talk, tall tales about jewels of enormous size and exquisite beauty.  He took dusty side-trips on his journeys, miles of discomfort out of his way, to talk to dealers in stones who were reputed to handle “only the best.”  Every time, Shlomo found a flaw.  Some defect, however small, which marred the perfection of the stone.  Had there never been any perfect gem?

So Shlomo persevered, his hopes fading with the years, although his eyes were still as keen.  And then, on a common day, in a common back-alley souk, with heat and smells and voices all around him, he found it:  a perfect blood red gem.  He stood and stared at it, turning it over and over in his fingers, holding it to the light again and again, afraid to believe in what he saw.

“How much for this?”  he asked the dealer, who was smiling quietly, patiently on his bench.

“Ah, respected sir, I don’t know whether you, even you, have wealth enough to purchase that stone…though I have held it back from other eyes so that you could see it first.”

“I thank you for the honor…but the price?”

So much. A price beyond his means, indeed.  Perhaps even a bit inflated?  But no,  for such a perfect stone, there was no question, that was a fair price.  What to do?

“How long will you be in this town? Will you stay awhile in my home, so that I may gather enough to buy this stone from you?”

The dealer agreed.  And the merchant went to work, not buying now, but selling, hurrying from place to place with the things he had amassed.  But as shrewd as Shlomo was at buying jewels, he was no con man when it came to selling his own goods.  His camels, his few personal jewels, all went for less than he’d have liked.  Frantically, he realized that it would take much more of his assets than he’d imagined.

Over their wine that evening, Shlomo and the dealer talked about the gem. “What would you say to taking all my household furnishings in exchange for the stone?”

“Where would I put such fine things, even to store and resell them? I deal in jewels because they’re small, sir. And–no offense, your home is very fine–but I’m not sure the value of your goods is equal to the stone.”

“No.  You’re right.  Well…what if I offered my house and the goods? My wardrobe, too…I have far more fine clothes than any man needs.  I have a servant. He would be yours also. What say you now?”

“Done!  That is an offer I think very fair.” And before the neighbors had time to do more than speculate as to where Shlomo could have gone with only the robe and tunic and cloak on his back, and long before they got the name of the new tenant in the fine house, Shlomo was gone, the beautiful red gem in his hand.  And nothing else.

He walked and walked, conscious only of possessing his heart’s desire.  Finally, he stopped and looked about him.  He’d left the town behind and night was coming down damply on his shoulders.  He had no home, no bed, no attendant. No money in his sack, no sack to put it in.  No livelihood because no stock in trade and no way to buy any new…except of course for IT.  He opened his hand and looked at it gleaming dully in the light of the rising moon.   No. He would never sell that.

So.  What was he then?  It came to him that perhaps he was a fool.  And all at once he laughed, and went on laughing as he walked on into the night.  When he came to another town, he’d hire himself to some prosperous citizen, as a worthy household slave.  Yes.  That would be fitting.  Clutching his treasure, Shlomo the fool walked on.

———————-

“I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish…” — Phil. 3:8

“We are fools for Christ…” — I Cor. 4:10

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A piece I read elsewhere reminded me of this post I wrote two years ago on my old blog.

We’ve labelled him “the doubter.”  Written him off, in a way.  Less “spiritual.”  But how is he less spiritual than the other disciples?  They didn’t get it, either…saw the empty tomb, heard reports, recalled Jesus’ own words.  But they didn’t really believe it until they saw Him. 

Where was Thomas?  Was his grief so great that he’d withdrawn?  He’d been willing to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus.  But he didn’t.  Seems as if he and Peter could have commiserated, but Thomas was absent. Maybe it was his turn to gather food for the group in hiding.  Or was he attending to the needs of family somewhere?  Whatever he was doing, wherever he’d gone, he missed Jesus’ visit.  So how did he feel when he heard about that?  Talk about being left out!  The inner circle only has 11 men in it to begin with…and he’s the odd man out.

I’d be bitter, personally.  Even if it was Jesus alive again, obviously I wasn’t important enough to wait for.  He didn’t care enough to see me.  Well, fine.  Maybe it hurts so much to have been excluded that Thomas decides it’s easier to pretend that they were all hallucinating.  It would be better to consign Jesus to the grave again, than to think He’d avoided seeing me on purpose.

Now it’s been eight days.  The others want to talk about the Master, compare notes, speculate, report other “sightings.”  But they can’t help seeing that Thomas grits his teeth and stares at the tabletop whenever the Lord is mentioned. So they clam up again.

Around dinnertime that day, with locked doors and everyone busy about his own task, there is Jesus.  He’s just–there.  And He heads straight for Thomas…slack-jawed, silent, barely-breathing Thomas.  “So–do you still want to see the scars?  Touch the nail holes?”  I think He’s smiling as He holds out His hands.  “Put your fingers where the spear went?”  He makes a gesture as if He’ll disrobe upon request, awkward as it would be.

None of it is necessary now.  Thomas is on his knees, weeping, gasping for air to fill his lungs and calm his pounding heart.  He just wanted to know that Jesus hadn’t forgotten him, disowned him…wherever He’d gone.  And the words that tumble out of his mouth show us that Thomas believes–no doubt about it!

“My Lord!  My God!”  Words of worship; active, believing identification. 

“Do you believe because You’ve seen Me now?”  (Just like the others needed to see me? I hoped for more faith from you, Thomas…but it’s all right. I’m here now.)  Then, as if time had wrinkled and Jesus could look right into my room here in 2007, He mentions me, mentions us:  “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”  And suddenly I see a profound purpose in Thomas’ exclusion, and in his confession.

For 2,000 years people have read the good news with pounding hearts and gasped out, “My Lord and my God!”  And aren’t our confessions possible in part because of the role the disciples played?  These gritty, struggling, confused men are real people.  They really knew Jesus.  They questioned and doubted, and believed.  I think it’s their struggle to believe–especially Thomas’ struggle–that convinces me.  They didn’t hear a vague rumor and let wishful thinking fill in the blanks.  They saw the risen Lord–talked with Him, ate with Him, embraced Him.  He was real, and He is real to us today, thanks to Thomas and his companions.  Thomas with his bad rap as a doubter…sitting at Jesus’ feet, I’ll bet Thomas doesn’t even mind.

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