Worse Than These

Third Sunday in Lent  |  Luke 13:1-9

Worse Than These

When I was young my father told me the story of a lady who grew up not far from where he did. She was what the people of their time called simple, though there is nothing simple about living with mental and developmental challenges. As a girl she loved school, and she loved riding the bus. Measured by her test scores, she was perhaps the worst student in the school, maybe in the county. Measured by her devotion and her enthusiasm, she was the finest pupil they had.

Long past the years when she was eligible to attend, she would get up and ready herself, and she would go and stand beside the dirt road along which her family lived, along which my father’s family lived, and she would wait for the bus. And for a time, they let her ride to the school and let her sit in the classes she loved, until modernity caught up with them all. One morning the bus no longer stopped for her, was not allowed to stop for her, and she was left crying, in shambles, as she watched it go.

Stopping her going was the right thing to do, by all the rules, but that did not make it any less wrong.

Photo by Granny
Photo by Granny

There is a sort of religious thinking, I would not grant it the title of theology, that says when something is wrong or simply different about us, when we are sick, when we have financial setbacks, when our children are somehow not like the majority of other children (as though being in the majority were something to be sought after,) that it is our fault. We hear that we are not right with God, that we should repent, that it is God’s just judgment.

Take my father’s neighbor, the girl who loved school. Given her challenges, just getting up and getting dressed, meeting a schedule and following her routine were magnificent achievements. Her plain joy in simply going to school was a blessing to everyone who saw it.

Of course, some people looked askance and thought that her existence was the judgment of God. Had her parents been better Christians, such thinking goes, their daughter would not have been born so.

Oh, it is not the sort of thing such people usually say straight out. They imply, suggesting that with prayer and commitment, most of all with repentance, God may yet heal, or change, or lift a burden.

Never mind the implication that a child is a burden. Let’s save that one for another day.

Let’s look at the idea that such challenges are the judgment of God. The idea is a corollary of simplistic notions of original sin: someone, not us, did something wrong, and so God, painting with a broad brush, judges us all. It is the flip side of the prosperity gospel: good health, possessions and wealth are the blessings of God upon the faithful. Anyone can understand the attraction of the concept. It makes it easy to explain why bad things happen—they deserved it, didn’t they? And it flatters those who have health and wealth—see how God rewards the faithful?

There are a lot of very good arguments against such thinking. Most are expressed in subtle ways by eloquent theologians.

I have two arguments. Neither is subtle.

First, anyone who believes that disease, or any other such thing, is God’s doing should go to the children’s ward of a hospital, stand at of the bedside of a child, any child, and try to pinpoint the particular sin that resulted in that child’s condition. It doesn’t work, and in the end such thoughts make God into a monster, the sort of tyrannical being nobody could or should endure. Frankly, people who think that way should be worried that they might convince God to go along with them, and then where would they be?

Second, Jesus didn’t think so. In the passage from Luke’s Gospel, he asks whether the victims of Pilate’s oppression, or those killed by a disaster, were worse people than those who had lived, unscathed. We don’t know the particulars of either incident, but it doesn’t matter. Jesus was making a point. He was talking about the same fallacy, that bad things only happen to bad people. Anyone paying attention to business and politics knows better.

“Did you think they suffered because they were worse sinners?” asks Jesus.

Then he tells a story about a fig tree that doesn’t fig. Three years of watching it, not a single fig, so the man tells his gardener to chop it down. (Never mind the implied wealth of the household, with an owner and a gardener and all of that. Think of it as a metaphor, or even an allegory—three years of Jesus teaching, God watching our response, and that sort of thing.) The fig wasn’t an ornamental plant. It was there to do something, but it didn’t. The gardener, being patient and fond of the plant, suggested adding manure and giving the thing one more year of opportunity.

It’s a word of warning and of grace. Warning, clearly, because the gardener—we may read into the story what we like for this role, a gardener, time, death, karma, God—may decide we aren’t worth keeping. We use up matter, take up space, consume and produce energy. Something in the universe is measuring return on investment.

It’s a word of grace because there is more time to make our existence worthwhile. I’m not talking about the future, since that is always a little dodgy. I mean the present. We get today to be a decent human, today to produce something decent, to be caring. Putting off giving a fig is a dangerous business.

One more season. One more year. That might be what we have—one more year, a season, a decade, one more day in the garden to give a fig. And the stuff that life dumps on us? We may find a way to use it, even if we don’t care for the way it smells at the time.

Jesus, Odin, and the Female Aspect of God

Scenes from the life of Christ

Second Sunday in Lent | Luke 13:31-35

A man walking purposefully toward his death, even though he has been warned, and God is a sitting hen with a brood of chicks—this is an odd bit of scripture.

Pharisees came to warn Jesus, Pharisees mind you, that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus told them that it was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. It wasn’t true, of course. Not literally. Plenty of people get killed all over the place, most of them nowhere near Jerusalem.

He wasn’t talking about the city. It was what she stood for, her role in the story. Jerusalem is, in the symbolism of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, the city of faith and the city of betrayal. Without faith and belief and love there can be no apostasy and no betrayal. Only the faithful, the people of faith, could put Jesus to death, and it was toward the faithful that he walked, knowing full well the price of his admission to Jerusalem.

Jelling runestone
Image of Christ on runestone, crucifixion on the branches of a tree, c. 970, Jelling, Denmark

Our story matters.The story of Christ’s death on a cross, his willing and intentional self sacrifice, his three day journey into darkness, his resurrection, was so powerful that it began to be told in every part of the world. By the time the story of the crucifixion reached northern Europe and the blood minded vikings, the people who heard it embraced it, wove it into their own mythology, trying to make sense of it. In their stories, Odin, the All-Father, the god who walked abroad in the form of a man, goes of his own will to be hanged on the world tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself in the search for wisdom, a boon to all humanity. He is hanged for nine days—three times three, to have one up on the Christian tale. Odin’s side is pierced with a spear, and in his death Odin gains in mystical power. Afterward Odin is wiser, transfigured, alive. It is a clear appropriation of the Christ story. Perhaps the incorporation of the Christ story into the Nordic myths explains why the northern peoples were notoriously averse to convert to Christianity—unknown even to themselves, they had already embraced something of the Gospel, though they had mapped Christ onto Odin. The Gospel story, even changed and adapted by Norsemen, had power.

The early Church did not rely on explanations. In the first and second century, one did not find lengthy theological explanations of what transpired on the cross, on the meaning of the resurrection, past being the signs of God. The explanations would come later. Instead, they relied upon the story and upon their comprehension that something mystical, miraculous, transfigurative had occurred in the purposeful life, teaching, willing death, and astonishing resurrection of Christ.

They held to the old, old story.

We moderns, on the other hand, want to hold to our newer explanations. We want to rely upon our systematic theological explanation of what it meant, how it worked. Good theology is central to faith, inseparable from a life of faith. Nevertheless, the best theology is not a substitute for faith. It is not the same thing, much as the study of biology, no matter how wonderful and powerful and useful, is not the same as being alive.

I am certainly not against theology—quite the opposite. Much of what I write is, at heart, theological. No, it is that I suspect many of us confuse our ideas about God with actual faith in God.

12 Scenes from the Life of Christ, Anonymous, c. 1450. Wallraf Richartz Museum.
12 Scenes from the Life of Christ, Anonymous, c. 1450. Wallraf Richartz Museum.

And what if our explanations are wrong? Or what if our systematic explanations of what happened on the cross are only partly right, partly true? What about the rest, the part we have missed, the parts we have overlooked, the ideas that we added, the parts we have wrong? The story is the thing that matters most. Without hearing the story—Christ’s journeying, Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s resurrection—and without wondering at it, being amazed by it, even doubting it and looking askance at it, we have nothing but notions and rules. It becomes only an explanation, and every child who has ever seen a rabbit pulled from a hat knows that the magic is more than smoke and mirrors. We grownups explain and think we are so brilliant to have figured out how the thing was done and why, that we miss the magic of it being done at all.

It was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem, Jesus told them. A man may die somewhere else—a criminal, a rebel, an innocent person—but a prophet only dies a prophet within the context of the faith community. It would make no sense outside the context of the life of faith: everywhere else the prophet is merely another human being. The Romans, left to their own devices, may have refused to harm Jesus. Pilate does, in fact, try to set him free. It was the people of Jesus’ own faith group who made sure he died.

In three days, he tells them, his work would be complete. We do not need to comb the narrative, trying to tell how long Luke’s Gospel takes to get Jesus to Jerusalem. Three is a perfect number, a symbol, and three days measure the perfect fullness of time.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

Jesus the prophet, Jesus the human expression of God, stands and proclaims the love of God as Mother, female, nurturing. It is not the only expression of God in the feminine form to have survived.¹ Given that the scripture we have was recorded, edited and preserved by a male dominated culture of priests and holy men, we may regard the survival of such feminine descriptions as miraculous, there because God wished it so.

So, we have Jerusalem and prophets, Odin and Norse mythology, God as our Mother, and Jesus walking toward his own death. What are we to make of that?

In this season of Lent, perhaps we need to let go of our explanations and simply embrace the story. It worked for the earliest Christians. Surely, the old, old story can work for us.

If you’d like a way to hear it without reading an entire gospel, here is the Nicene Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer. Yes, there is meaning here, and deep theology, but my God, the story:

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

¹ Descriptions of God embracing female aspects may be found in Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 32:10-18; Psalm 123:2-3; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:13; Hosea 11:3-4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.

Pepperoni Sky

Pepperoni Sky

Here’s a bit of story that might turn out to be part of something longer. I hope you enjoy it.—CT

MaryAnn Hardison was six years old when her family visited SeaWorld. She loved the dolphins and whales in a way that she could never love her brother, who was more like a toad than a mammal. Just as they were walking beneath the path of one of the park’s enormous sprawling roller coasters, someone passing above them hurled, and a reeking gelatinous mass of blue slushee and masticated but still recognizable pepperoni pizza landed, more or less precisely, on her head.

She was wearing her favorite dress at the time, a blue sundress, which did, by the simple happenstance of matching color, disguise most of the damage from the regurgitated slushee. Nothing short of body armor could have withstood the pepperoni vomit. Her mother tried to rake most of the mess off of her shoulders with a folded park map, the one they had been using to find the orca stadium. MaryAnn stood there, drenched and dripping blue with bits of pepperoni, listening to her father making deep guttural sounds, his hands held out at his sides, unable to vocalize language at such a moment. Her brother was laughing, howler monkey laughter, so that the sound echoed through the park and people turned to see.

Her mother ushered her to a nearby bathroom and disrobed her. MaryAnn stood on the damp cement floor while her mother wet brown paper towels from the dispenser on the wall and wiped at the doughy detritus on her skin. She held her head over the sink while her mother tried to shampoo her hair with hand soap, telling her all the while not to worry, that the hand soap had a lovely fragrance and might even be better than shampoo at leaving her hair manageable. MaryAnn squatted in her underwear under the jet stream of the hand dryer while other girls and women came and went, each of them staring at her and at the putrid mess on the floor that had been her beautiful blue dress, the one she had wanted to wear to see the dolphins.

Getting wet was fine. She had planned to get wet, planned wearing her loose fitting dress just so that she could enjoy the water splashed by the whales and the dolphins. Now her dress was a sopping malodorous heap on a concrete bathroom floor, she was nearly naked, squatting under the shrieking turbine of a hand dryer, and her mother kept telling her it was all going to be fine as she teased MaryAnn’s hair farther and farther out until she resembled nothing so much as an Addams Family freak, fish belly pale with electrified hair. A woman came into the bathroom with a plastic bag from the gift shop. MaryAnn’s father had bought some clothes while they had been washing away most of the vomit. The woman gave the bag to her mother, gaped open mouthed at MaryAnn, and said, “Oh, you poor thing. I can’t even imagine…”

During the entire humiliation, even over the turbine shriek of the blow dryer, MaryAnn heard her brother laughing. By the time the blow dryer stopped its final cycle, he was still laughing, but the sound had changed into something like a hyena bark, more like involuntary and painful heaving grunts than human laughter. She learned later that he had laughed so hard that he had, in fact, himself vomited into a park trash can, probably while her mother was trying to rinse her hair with the trickle of water from a faucet mounted two inches above the bottom of the sink.

The clothes her father bought for her, draw-string shorts and a SeaWorld t-shirt large enough for a professional wrestler—it hung past her knees—were an embarrassment, but worse than the appearance was the smell. The odor of the new fabric, redolent with the dyes that colored it, blended in the summer heat with vomit residue that the damp bathroom towels had not removed from her skin. The new smell was hitherto unknown by humankind. The fabric hitched and clung to the sticky spots. Of her original outfit, only her underwear and her flip flops had been salvaged, her underwear wet and cold from having been washed in the sink, since the blue liquid had seeped down her dress and dripped and run onto everything she had been wearing. Her mother had put her soggy dress and hair band into the SeaWorld bag from the gift shop, but the Florida sun rendered the mixture of vomit and cloth into something unbearable. At some point MaryAnn noticed that the bag had been discarded. She was glad to see it gone. No amount of laundering would have made the dress wearable or returned it to its former status as her favorite.

All of it might have been bearable, all of it something from which she could have recovered. She could even have endured her brother’s hyena laughter, which she already knew would recur all their lives each time he saw someone eating a pepperoni pizza or slurping a blue icee. The one thing that was unbearable, from which she could never recover, was the clear and immovable memory of looking up at the passing roller coaster just as the impact occurred. She could still feel the bits of dough sliming across her face, and the smell of pizza would forever make her nauseous.

Later, they sat on a stadium bench watching gargantuan black orcas circle their tank until one of them sent a wave of water over the side, drenching them all. No one said a word. Amid the shouts and shrieks of hundreds of other park visitors, her family sat silent, barely moving. Even her brother just lowered his eyes to stare at his ruined cup of popcorn, the soggy kernels now floating in buttery seawater.

After a minute her father said, “Well, at least now we are all the same.”

Only MaryAnn knew they weren’t the same. They were all wet, drenched with whale water, but so were hundreds of other whooping and laughing tourists. No, MaryAnn thought, we are not the same, for out of all the people in the enormous stadium, only she had squatted, covered in the vomit of a stranger, beneath a wall mounted blow dryer, her mother teasing and pulling her half rinsed hair until she looked like a lunatic wearing a SeaWorld tent.

All the time that they sat on the bench, dripping salt water and watching the rest of the show, MaryAnn imagined feeding her brother to the whales, and she smiled.

Orca Stadium at SeaWorld

More Than Bread

Luke 4:1-13 | First Sunday in Lent

Forty days. Forty years. We encounter that measure of time over and over. Moses on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, the flood rains falling for forty days and nights, the Hebrew people dwelling in the desert for forty years—it is a recurring element.

In the story of the temptation of Christ, he is in the wilderness for forty days, fasting, withdrawn from the world. We don’t know why he went. He was led there by the Spirit, says Luke. Mark writes that the Holy Spirit literally threw him into the wilderness—there’s a thought. I wonder whether Jesus had any idea why he was there.

Now we enter the forty days of Lent, give or take Sundays, that lead to Easter. I wonder whether we have any idea why we are here, whether we noticed.

Forty years. Forty days. It is a perfect time, a complete unit, a generation. We are better off not thinking in literal terms—so many days or weeks or hours—that much is a given. We cannot always measure the things that matter, nor should we try.

Instead of wondering how Jesus managed a forty day fast and a forty day temptation, we might recast the story: after enough time, or just at the right time, in the fullness of time, Jesus encountered his demons.

If we are going to practice non-literal thinking, we might also reimagine the part of the devil. Perhaps the devil is only what we think it is when we are children—an antagonist, a boogeyman, something outside ourselves, hiding in the shadows. In this story, the devil is something different than a boogeyman. It represents the ways our own hearts and minds betray us. After all, Jesus later teaches that we can only be made unclean by what comes from our own hearts, or so Matthew and Mark tell us, though Luke does not.

We are betrayed by the evil that we nurture, the evil we create for ourselves, no outside influence required.

We listen to the story of the temptation as though it can only be understood one way. Take time, for instance, and the role of timing in the telling. There are the forty days of fasting, after which Jesus was hungry. While we understand that the temptation to turn rocks into bread, which in all honesty sounds like an excellent notion, comes at the end of this period of fasting, it is not so clear that the temptation only began after the forty days were up. The text literally says that Jesus was in the desert for forty days being tempted. That is to say, the whole time.

Luke writes in detail about temptations of sustenance and of power and of safety, but nothing tells us that these three were the whole shebang. Just as it is with the person we see in the street or on the next pew, we don’t know everything that happened to Jesus when he was out there in the wilderness. What else may have danced at the edge of his mind in those days like a snake crawling on the sand?

If it were a modern tale, or a movie, we would know that we heard part, saw part, were given illustrative images from the greater whole. Gospels, like movies, can only be so long before the audience turns away.

The Torment of Saint Anthony
The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo (after an engraving by Martin Schongauer)

At the end, we read that the devil withdrew until a more favorable time—and there is that concept of perfect times again, something whole, complete, symbolic. Not that our demons ever go away. We bring them with us when we are led—thrown—into our wilderness, our deserts. Saint Anthony, one of the first of the desert fathers, is said to have walked everywhere with demons clutching at his feet.

Time. Wilderness. Temptation. These are the themes, the images, the symbols of the story. These are also the themes and symbols of our own Lenten journeys, no matter when we find ourselves alone in our own deserts, hungering for something that is more filling than bread, more lasting than fame and power, more valuable than safety.

Abraham Maslow proposed that we have a Hierarchy of Needs. Based on his concept, humans first need food and shelter, and only then can we turn to pursue the higher things—love, self-esteem, self-transcendence. Jesus, never having read psychology, seems to have begun at the apex. Transcendence. Of all the things we might choose to bring with us on our trek into the wilderness—tents, food, all manner of survival gear–none of it was important to Jesus.

He didn’t go into the wilderness just to survive. He walked into the desert to be alive.

Forty days of Lent. Forty hours of work. Forty seconds to breathe and to sip some coffee. All of these are perfect times, and we are tempted to distraction, tempted by distraction. Our purpose is not just to survive the time that we have. Our purpose is to live it.

Temptation of Christ, engraving
Temptation of Christ, engraving

Stopping Isn’t Changing

Transfiguration | Luke 9:28-45

Stopping Isn’t Changing

Transfiguration—according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word means “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”.

A complete change. How often do we see that happen? How often do we experience it?

A few creatures manage it. Caterpillars, perhaps locusts. Among people, transfigurations are rare. Our changes are usually less apparent, and most of the time we are only pretending. We say that we are going to change, when we mean that we are going to stop something—stop drinking, stop the drugs, stop lying to ourselves, stop wasting time.

Icon of Transfiguration, Novgorod School, 15th century.
Icon of Transfiguration, Novgorod School, 15th century.

Stopping is not the same as changing.

We stop the drinking or drugs or whatever else we have been doing, and we pretend that by being sober we are changed.

Stopping is not changing — it is standing still. A changed person goes on to become something else, begins doing something new. A man who simply stops has not changed: he is just waiting for the opportunity to begin again. Ask anyone who has lived with an alcoholic who thought the goal was just to stop drinking.

Stopping is only the first step. Then you have to start climbing the mountain.

That is one way that changing is like writing. If you are going to write a novel, you may start with an idea, and you may have some notion of where you are going, but the only way to finish is to just keep putting one word after another. You keep taking one more step up the mountainside.

It’s that easy. It’s that hard.¹

When you finish, getting to the top of the mountain gives you the chance to see what you have done, how far you came, but doing the work got you there.

If you stop, you will never climb the mountain. You will never get where you are going, and you will never change. You will never be able to look back and see where you were when you started, because you never left.

Mountaintops are small places. There is more space in the valley below, and the valleys are all around. When you have climbed one mountain, all that is left is to come back down and choose whether to stay in the valley or to pick another hillside.

The view changes, and so do we — doing the work changes us.Icon_of_transfiguration_(Spaso-Preobrazhensky_Monastery,_Yaroslavl)

We can stop the drinking, stop the drugs, stop wasting time, stop whatever it is that is keeping us bound up in ourselves, but it is still there. We are still there. When Jesus came down from the mountain, he found a boy who was seized by a demon. We could argue the literal or metaphorical understanding of the story, but we all have our demons. Whether we make our own demons or they were already there is of little importance. What matters is getting free.

Getting free means more than stopping. It means doing the work, taking the next steps, one mountain after another, one valley after another.


Again, a story told differently sometimes helps us to hear it. Here’s an excerpt from my novel I,John telling the transfiguration story from different points of view, that of an angel named Adriel and that of the disciple named John. I wrote it one word after another.


There are four of them, and they are climbing a mountain. It has nothing at the top but a view of the bottom, so I think that what they are doing is odd. Perhaps they are more like us, doing unlikely things for the pleasure it brings.
The one named Peter is the strongest, but he gives little thought to his path. Along the way he has to stop, baffled by rock, and turn back to the path behind Jesus. I sit on an outcropping watching them pass. Jesus is the only one who seems to know I am there. When he glances over at me, the one named John follows his eyes and pauses, staring at my rock perch though I do not believe he can sense me. James only wipes at the sweat on his forehead. Peter mumbles curses.
A cloud is moving across the peaks, hiding the long fall to the valley. Their group has scuffled their way to the top. Peter collapses, his back on the mountain, and stretches out as to sleep. I move past them when I feel the change. It is like waking from a dream when you did not know you were sleeping. Sunlight strengthens, but the shadows are cast away from the figure of Jesus, light coming from him and now from the others who are with him. They are not the three who made the climb, now lying face down on the hard rock. These are two more, men I think, though even I am not sure.
Jesus turns and tells the three to rise.
“These you know,” he says. “Here are Elijah and Moses. Do you not recognize them?”
I do not understand how this has come to pass. Neither, it seems, do these three men. James and John are standing. Peter drops back to his knees.
“Good! It is good, Lord!” Peter’s eyes move from one to the other, his arms stretched out wide. The other men say nothing at all. “We shall make a camp for you!”
He is babbling.
Jesus continues talking with the other beings for a while, not remarking on Peter’s plan. The light begins to increase and the wind makes the men’s robes ripple and slap against them. There are voices and more beings, a wall sliding away. I hear a great voice speaking, and I know I hear it also long ago in my memory, but I do not know the words. I cannot tell whether the sound begins from above us or comes from inside us, and I am lost. The three men are flat on the rock of the mountain, none of them looking up. I see many figures streaming through the light, then one light as though somehow the sun is within the cloud, and the energy of it sounds like static, so loud, it hums every frequency at once, and then everything stops.
The clouds are gone, as is the light. Now there is ordinary sunlight, no longer appearing so bright on the top of the mountain. Jesus is gazing down into the valley, and it seems to me that he has been standing there the whole time, only looking, that nothing has happened.
Gravel shifts and I realize the three men are still there, Peter beginning to stand, John and James helping one another to move. They are looking around them as though just now waking.
None of us speak. None of us moves.
Jesus turns and looks at the three. Saying nothing, he starts back down the mountain just as they had come. They follow, as do I.
Part of the way down is a rock shelf, high and wide enough for all of them to stand together. Jesus is again watching the valley. When the others catch up to him and stand there waiting, he turns to them.
“Tell nobody what you have seen.” He watches them for a moment. “One day you may understand it, and then you may speak of it. Until then, keep it within you.”
He does not turn to leave but waits, looking at them. Peter is staring, mouth open. James is little better, looking from his brother and Peter back to Jesus. It is John who managed to speak.
“Lord.” A pause. “That was Moses? And Elijah?”
Jesus’s face softens.
“Yes, in a way.” He turns to look back down into the valley. “Such things are hard to explain to you now, but one day you will understand. Elijah was here. Moses was here.”
No one speaks. Jesus keeps watching the valley, the small figures gathering at the bottom of the mountain. There is a village in the valley, and the other followers of Jesus are there waiting.
Jesus turns, and they begin the slow climb down.


I barely saw the rocks. I only remember the feel of them under my feet and in my hands, hard and flinting away into flakes and sand, as we made our way down that mountain. What had we seen?
Maybe there was no air, our minds taking leave of us at the top, but we had all seen it. Peter had talked about making a camp. The light had been so bright that everything else still seemed to be in shadow, even in the afternoon sunlight.
I did not know what voice I had heard, and the more that I thought about it, the more I think about it now, the more I seem to have heard. That voice was saying things that I would not hear until time had passed. I still hear them. The right time comes and the meaning becomes as clear as though Jesus had simply turned and spoken himself. There was nobody on that mountain but us, and there was a complete world without sky and without form. Perhaps it was God speaking, I do not know. It was not a voice like anything else that I have ever heard. It spoke that day, but it spoke outside of time, and the meaning cannot be heard until its purpose has come.
Perhaps God says everything at once, and it is the hearing of the words that require time. The meaning is already there, carried within us, and suddenly we understand it when the time comes. That it why we cannot make out what the voice is saying. It is all the words we will ever hear but spoken at once, and it is time that translates them to our being.
I stumbled on a stone at the bottom of the mountain. James caught my arm, and then when I had recovered he nodded for me to look ahead. Jesus was walking toward the other disciples, all of them standing together with a crowd circling, voices raised. Some of the crowd saw Jesus approaching and turned to run toward him. Their faces were a strange mix, some glad and some with the look of men watching the spectacle of a circus.
Jesus kept walking toward the center, the crowd falling back to let him pass. A boy was lying on the ground, his body stiff and thrashing on the ground. I had never seen such a thing, yet I was sure Jesus would touch him and stop whatever was wrong.
He did not touch the boy, though, but stood a few feet from him and watched. The boy’s father came and took hold of Jesus’s sleeve, then knelt in front of him.
“How long has he been like that?” asked Jesus. The boy was thrashing on the ground, clearly about to hurt himself, and Jesus was asking questions as though he were a tourist attraction.
“Since he was a child,” said the father. “We do not know what to do to help him, but we keep him from rolling into the fire or hurting himself.”
The father paused and looked back at his son. He was ignoring the crowd.
“Can you help him? Your followers have been able to do nothing. Are you able to help him?”
Jesus looked across at the other disciples. All of them looked down at the ground or away.
“All things are possible,” he said. “Do you believe this?”
I was not sure whether he was speaking to us or to the boy’s father. It was the father who answered.
“I believe, yet I do not believe. That is the truth of it, and I would not lie to you.” The man looked at his son, then back at Jesus once more. “Still, can you help him?”
Jesus reached out and put his hand on the father’s shoulder. More people were hurrying up the path from the village, all of them holding their heads up to see over the crowd already gathered there.
He spoke to the boy, or to something. I could not remember his words. The father turned to see, and the boy stopped moving and lay still. The father crawled across the dust to him and lifted him.
“He is dead.” It was someone in the crowd saying so. Peter looked across the faces, and I knew that it was good he could not tell which of them had said such a thing out loud.
“No,” the father said. “He is not dead.”
We heard the boy gasp for air, and his father turned to look up at Jesus.
“He is alive, my boy is alive.”
In his father’s arms the boy was limp, breathing as though he had run a race, but he was not thrashing anymore.
“You had faith enough,” Jesus said. “If you had told me you had no doubt, then you would have failed me.”
He turned and walked away from the boy and his father as though the crowd were not even there.

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¹ “It’s that easy, and that hard.” – That is the way Neil Gaiman famously put it, when explaining how to finish a story. You can find his answer here on Neil Gaiman’s Journal.

Transfiguration by Raphael, c. 1520