Thirty-Eight Years

Pool with lilies and a dragon

Sixth Sunday of Easter | John 5:1-18

Thirty-Eight Years

“There was one man who had been ill for thirty-eight years,” John tells us. We do not hear how many of those years the man may have lain near this pool, hoping for a cure. Thirty-eight years. It is such an odd detail, but not the only one. This story, a gospel story no less, speaks of a pool stirred by an angel, and of people being healed when entering the water, a miraculous baptism.

The fourth verse, the one that tells of angels stirring the water, is almost certainly a later addition to the text, not written by the same hand that gave us the rest of the story. Still, the pool was real enough, matching a pool excavated on the site, with four surrounding colonnades and a dividing partition — the five porticoes of the Gospel description. Perhaps there were indeed stories of an angel who stirred the water, not unlike Muslim stories of a pool stirred by a jinn.¹ Whatever the reason, this crippled man waited beside the pool.

He isn’t the cleverest person there, our crippled man, that much is certain. He has figured no way to get into the water quickly, and he even seems to be whining about his chosen spot at some distance from the water and his lack of a helper. Later he does not have the good sense to avoid the questions of the religious leaders, who themselves ironically ignore his miraculous cure in their indignation that such a thing would be done on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle: this man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath.Water dripping into a container

Imagine, God breaking the Sabbath rules these men had made, or encouraging someone else to break them.

Religion has never lacked for small minds.

Consider the person Jesus chose. The healed man demonstrates no faith in anything but in the properties of the pool, and he has never managed to act on that. He does not know who Jesus is. He offers no reason to be favored by God or by anyone else. He is dim witted, undeserving, a rat who goes out of his way to inform on the man who gave him everything he wanted.

Jesus picks him, out of however many others were lying there, and we see no good reason for his choice. It appears whimsical, but must be for a purpose — Jesus finds the man a second time and speaks to him again. Whatever the reason for his choice, this healing is an act of pure grace.

We might think on that act of grace, and on the man who received it. Looking at him, we can lay aside our notions of earning favor, or even of having sufficient faith, which comes to the same thing — we try to buy God’s favor with the fervent currency of belief, but this crippled man had nothing going for him.

He is stupid, ungrateful, a rat, and Jesus helps him anyway. Maybe by looking at him we can make a more honest assessment of ourselves, our supposed worthiness (for anything), and the depth of our belief.

After all, faith is not currency, that we should offer it in exchange for what we want from God and the universe. Neither is faith magic, that we should use it to influence God and the universe to do what we want.

Faith isn’t a price we pay, and it is not a crutch for a crippled mind. It is a response. Faith is the acceptance, and the acknowledgment, of grace, no matter how many years we spend waiting for the water to stir.


¹ Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII), AB 29 (New York:
Doubleday, 1966), 207.

Pool with Dragon


Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John — reimagining this story in the Gospel of John from the points of view of the disciple John and of an angel named Adriel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

John

The pool was crowded, but the light reflecting from the water brightened the pillars and the mosaics. So many sick people, waiting for this miraculous cure—jump in the pool when the water moves. It was ridiculous. They must have been idiots as well as invalids, because that water was never going to move on its own. Not that a bath wouldn’t do some of them good, but they’d likely drown as soon as they rolled themselves in the pool.

I’m sure that the Romans thought they were idiots. They thought we all were, anyone who wasn’t Roman. The sooner we passed through, the better.

Jesus stopped, though, and so did we. He was looking around at the invalids, and some of them were looking back at us. No doubt they were hoping for charity. I felt awkward just standing looking at them. Peter, his hair at all angles, stared at the people lying on their mats as though they were something odd washed up on the shore. I was trying to think of something to say quietly to Jesus to get us moving again. No good could come of a bunch of us standing here looking at these people.

Jesus stepped past a blind fellow, his head bobbing around like a bird as he slept sitting against a pillar, and stood at the feet of a paralyzed man. He was perfectly still, watching Jesus and only glancing at the rest of us. I could see daylight streaming through a portico. I was thinking that if we quietly walked through that opening, perhaps Jesus would follow us.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man. A stupid question, I thought. I was embarrassed.

The man explained that he did not have anyone to help him get to the water when it was stirred by angels. Angels, I thought. Really. I just wanted to walk quietly into the light of the portico, melt into the people going along into the city, but we couldn’t leave Jesus standing there.

“Stand up,” Jesus said to the invalid. “Take your mat and walk.”

The man’s legs were shriveled, a waste, and Jesus was telling him to stand up. Peter was over at the other side, jutting his great head forward and staring, first at Jesus then at the man’s legs. I felt like everything stopped, just for a moment, the particles of dust in the sunlight stopped without movement, and it seemed that I heard water gurgling, a fountain or splashing.

The man was looking into Jesus’ eyes, then the man put his arms out and started pushing himself upright. That’s when he moved his knee, drawing his leg up toward him, and he stopped again for a moment, alarmed. Around me, the other sick men were moving as well, dragging themselves toward the pool where the water was swirling.

“The angels stirred it,” I said, then I put my hand over my mouth, not believing I had said it. We began helping the men into the pool, all of them except the one in front of Jesus. That man stood up on his own, Peter reaching toward him to steady him in case he fell. Peter was staring at the man’s legs. They were as straight and as muscular as my own.

I felt someone take my arm, a blind man sitting near me, and I began helping him toward the pool. All of them, all the sick, we put into the pool, and I couldn’t tell if the water was moving because of them or on its own. As soon as the blind fellow I was helping stepped into the water he stopped and turned to me. He was looking at me, looking at my face as though I was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I realized he could see.

I looked back at Jesus, but he just walked through the portico into the sunlight, the dust in the air making him vanish as he went.

Adriel

Jesus is talking to the crippled man near the wall, but I cannot focus on his words. The blind man near me is thinking too loudly, and he is difficult to understand. He is blind from birth, and all of his thoughts blend the abstract and the concrete, a place name with a sound, feelings of fear and the touch of leather, memories of home with the smell of bread, and I realize too late that he is dreaming the dreams of the blind. Dreams are dangerous at best, but with his odd sensory associations I am captivated, falling, not seeing the ground but knowing it is there.

I fall into a pool, and the water envelops me. It should not matter. I am not a physical being, but the blind man’s dreams make me reach out to touch this world, and suddenly the water knows I am there.

Miraculous. They lay here expecting the water to move, and it does.

I rise from the water to gauge whether anyone has seen, and the man Jesus is looking at me. He says nothing, just turns unsurprised and continues talking with the invalid.

There are more splashes, and some of the people are hurling themselves into the pool, water surging out onto the tile floor. The healthy men and women who had been following Jesus start helping the sick into the pool. It is madness, a bizarre game of Adriel Says, though I have said nothing, just fallen into the water.

I feel the power, though, power that is in the water with me, not from me. The sick ones are changing, leaving the pool with stronger bodies. The dust stirred by the crowd sparkles in the sunlight, and the water splashing from the pool and dripping from their bodies mirrors the light. Jesus is already walking away, and the blind man is staring at one of the followers, both of them wet and dripping.

Communion with the Divine

Loaf of Bread with Flowers

Third Sunday of Easter | John 21:1-19

Communion with the Divine

“The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me…”

Habits are powerful things, and habits of thought are among the most powerful.

Take the simple notion that it is good to get up each day and get going, to do the work at hand—it is one of the simplest ideas we can have in our lives, but in the end this thought may get us through our most difficult days.

Sometimes our habits of thought get in the way. We misremember events, tilting them in one direction or another, embellishing our worth or exaggerating an injury done to us. We seldom revise our opinions of other people, even when they deserve a downgrade or have earned better.

A loaf of breadOur habits of thought are wickedly pernicious in matters of faith. We believe what we believe, and that is that. Of course, such devotion to a set of ideas is not faith at all: it is idolatry. Little by little, we trade faith for certainty until we leave off worshipping God and begin worshipping our own ideas about God. Once we get there, our ideas seldom change.

Closed mindedness is the death knell of spirituality. God may not change, but our understanding must–or did we think we understood everything, right from the beginning? Perceiving the divine depends upon our willingness to be surprised.

In John’s Gospel, a few tired, disillusioned disciples nearly give up. Thinking their journey with the miraculous over, they return to fishing, a way of life some of them knew before Jesus’ arrest and the fiasco of his death. Nevertheless, even at that point, they were still willing to be surprised, willing to experience the divine in a meal of fish and bread, served by a person they thought never to see again.

When they expected never to hear the living voice of Jesus, he called to them across the water. Having watched him die, they opened their minds to the divine reality of seeing him alive.

God may be in the explosions of stars, the expanse of space. John’s Gospel says that we may find God in the smallness of a loaf of bread, if our minds are open to the possibility.

Imagine, communion with the divine.

__________________________

Here is another version of the story from John’s Gospel, as I retold it for the opening chapter of I,John. Sometimes just hearing a story told differently can change the way we think about it. I hope you enjoy it.

John

The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.

I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.

Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people have seen things that did not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.

In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.

Look where it got us. Look where it got him.

My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.

So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that day that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.

Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.

I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.

And he was certainly dead.

I am left remembering all of it, at least I am left remembering those days. They are in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it is the same. Some moments stand out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. You would think that the crucifixion might be my most vivid memory, but it is not. Oh, I remember that day, certainly, but it is not what haunts my dreams or creeps into my waking thoughts. I remember blind men, and Mary. I remember Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remember the bread that Jesus gave us.

Most of all, I dream of that morning at the shore.

Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.

No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.

Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.

“Friends, have you got any fish?”

I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.

No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.

“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”

All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.

The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.

“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.

There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.

Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed, the women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.

“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.

In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.

_______________

I,John - a novel - is available from booksellers everywhere.

 

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.

Adriel

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.

John

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.

You can read a longer free excerpt in the new online Kindle Preview. It opens a book view of I,John in your browser window–just click here.


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

No Explanations

Third Sunday in Lent  |  John 2:13-22

Lectionary Project

We explain too much. That’s one of the best ways to ruin a good story.

Maybe that is why so many people turn away from faith. They are sick of the explanations and admonitions, the rules of religion. Who can blame them?

They want a story that helps them imagine their world. They are looking for something true and meaningful as only a story can be.

The four Gospels do not offer much explanation. Instead, they tell the story of this man Jesus. Even the teaching passages are held as a narrative, and much of what Jesus says is itself in story form, parables throwing the truth alongside the audience.

Baby GoatWe are hardwired for story. So long as there have been humans, we have told stories. There have also always been folk who tried to turn the stories into rules, but it was the stories that lasted.

Storytellers are always more powerful than rule makers.

With that in mind, I don’t wish to try to explain the story of Jesus clearing the animal merchants and the coin exchangers from the temple. That the story is important is clear from the fact that the Gospels place the event at such differing points—Mark, Matthew and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ career, contributing to his arrest and crucifixion, while John places the event close to the beginning of Jesus’ public life, a pivotal point of departure. Despite such clear ambivalence among the four as to the significance of what Jesus does, all four Gospels tell the story at length. All four Gospels point out Jesus’ passion, intensity and anger. None of them offer much explanation.

Taking their lead, let’s trust in the power of story. Sometimes, simply hearing a story told in a different way is enough to help us find something new. That being said, here is a retelling of this story from the Gospel—an excerpt from my novel I,John, narrated by John himself. I hope you enjoy it.


 

The Temple was magnificent. It was huge to my eyes, with enormous walls and smooth paved courtyards. So many stones, so much space. Then there were the uniforms of the guards, the robes of the priests, the movement of people and of animals. Our synagogue was one thing, but this was a dwelling place of the almighty God, and I had carried a sense of awe about the Temple ever since I was a small child.

I was a fisherman’s son, and entering the Temple made me feel a little light headed, with that odd sensation of watching one’s self from above one’s own body. It was unsettling, but we were with Jesus after all. What better way to visit the Temple?

Jesus was too quiet this time. After we walked inside the walls to the first great court, Jesus stopped and stood still for what seemed to be hours. He was looking at the tables for the doves, the stands with the livestock for sacrifices, tables where people exchanged foreign coins for proper ones. I remember as a child hearing my father and others say to one another that there was more money made in the court of the Temple than a fisherman would see in a lifetime. Peter was standing beside Jesus, that great hairy head turning from side to side as though he, too, were taking stock. The difference was that Peter was smiling. He still believed that we were simply here as part of our observance of Passover. I, on the other hand, had already seen enough of Jesus’ face to know that we were in for something different.

Jesus walked nearer the animals and picked up a length of rope that was left near a stall. He began looping it back and forth, making a whip. Peter was walking with him, nodding his enormous head at people and holding up a hand in greeting, as though these people had some interest in talking to any of us. Then Jesus just walked over to the first stall of livestock and threw down the wooden bar closing in the sheep. Seeing it, I couldn’t move. Peter looked around at the sound of the wood on the stone floor and took a step toward Jesus.

“Here, master, let me get that,” he said. He didn’t know Jesus had thrown it down purposefully.

Jesus didn’t say a word, just headed to the next stall full of oxen. When the stallGoats 2 017 keeper tried to stop him, Jesus began beating the man with the cords, driving him out of the way. The man fell back to the stones, astonished, but no more so than we. Jesus again threw the wooden beam aside that held back the animals and began driving them toward the gate.

The next few minutes were filled with shouting, animals bleating and lowing, dust rising up from the paving stones, pandemonium. Then Jesus walked straight to a table where moneychangers sat with their piles and bags of coins. I still had not moved from where I stood, horrified at the disturbance Jesus was causing, unable to believe what he was doing. The disturbing light-headedness was growing stronger, so that I stood still in the middle of the swirl of animals and men, the sounds of language that should not be heard in the temple, Jesus flailing with the rope and beating anyone who approached him. I was sure I would faint, and I may have blacked out for a moment, for suddenly there was the sound of coins striking the stones, a great cacophony of coins, curses shouted by the merchants, priests yelling for calm. I looked across the open way to see the Roman soldiers in a watchtower from which they could look down over the temple walls at the commotion.

Angry priests, angry merchants, Jesus beating people with the rope, and the Romans were watching. It was a scene difficult to improve upon, though the terrified animals dashing through the crowds managed as they found open gateways and made their escape into the streets around the Temple grounds. I could hear people shouting from beyond the Temple walls now. Looking behind us at the gate, I considered leaving quietly, unnoticed, but I could not leave Jesus, my brother, the others. James was standing with his mouth open, as unmoving as I except for the twitching of his hands and his eyes following Jesus’ movements.

That’s when I heard Jesus yelling about his father’s house and thieves. I had never seen him angry before this, and it was impressive. The priests were yielding, some even looked embarrassed, though most of them were angry, outraged. Meanwhile, the merchants were either chasing the livestock down the adjoining streets or on their knees gathering coins, all too busy to enter a dialogue with Jesus about his motives.

I thought they would kill us all. They would arrest us, beat us, and maybe even crucify us for all I knew. What was the punishment for disrupting the temple? I did not know. The last man who had done it had used an army, had destroyed the city before hauling slaves away into Babylon. We had no army. The Temple had guards, though, and there were the Romans who did not enjoy disturbances. At the least they would throw us into prison. I thought of my father, of word reaching him that his sons were in a Roman prison.

No one tried to arrest us. I kept watching the faces around us, waiting to see who would think of it. Surely the idea would occur to someone very soon.

Finally, Jesus threw the rope back into the empty oxen stall and walked out of the temple grounds. I was glad to follow. As we walked, Jesus a few steps ahead of the rest of us, we kept looking back to see whether we were being chased by the merchants and ahead to see if the Romans were coming to arrest us. Neither happened.

It was a miracle.

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What Changes

Clouds - I, John cover

Transfiguration | Mark 9:2-29

Lectionary Project

What Changes

Maybe it never happened. According to Mark, at the top of a mountain three men saw Jesus changed, transfigured, with dazzling white clothes and supernatural visitors.

We don’t know what they saw.

Maybe it never happened, and the entire passage is metaphorical. Maybe it happened just as the story says. Either way, it could be true.

At the mountaintop, everything is bright, breathtaking, amazing, and while Peter, James and John don’t understand what they are seeing, they have no trouble believing they are experiencing it. Afterward, at the bottom of the mountain, nothing is bright or clear. A boy is thrashing on the ground in some sort of fit, and faith is hard to come by.

Mountaintops and dust.Mountains with Grass

Our lives are like that, mountaintops and dust, and so of course the story is a metaphor. That has nothing to do with whether any of it really happened. Some of the truest stories never happened, and plenty of things that happen are pretty thin on truth.

What do we read the Bible for anyway, I ask you, we who claim or try to be people of faith? Is it to find out what happened? If so, we’re reading the wrong books. We’d do better to find some good histories, or to read an archaeological journal.

I think we start reading the Bible because someone told us it was true. It is just that most of the time they don’t go on to tell us what that means, to be true, and so we wander off or begin to argue about what it says.

I think that what we are really looking for is something to improve our lives. That’s the kind of truth we need. If we’re walking down in the low dark places, feet covered in dust, or if like the boy in the story we are lying on the ground like a corpse, we need to believe that something can happen, that our life can change, that somewhere there is an end to the valley and that somewhere the sun shines so brightly that we could not bear to look at it. Or, if we cannot manage to believe that we ourselves can make it to the mountaintop, we need to believe that someone will come down and take us by the hand, show some compassion, help us up from the dirt and the dust.

We have always been fascinated by the idea of change. Look at the stories that our ancestors cherished. The Greeks told stories of gods who changed into bulls, horses that spread their wings and flew. Metamorphosis. Butterflies amaze us when they emerge, and so do people. Good men who become taciturn, bitter, resentful old geezers. Self centered, manipulative youths who grow into responsible, caring people. Cells that metastasize. Stars that explode. Mr Hyde and Superman. Old grievances that do not matter any more.

That is what we want from this story. Change. We want it to change us, like every great and true story does. Why do we think telling such stories is the single most human thing we do? From firelight on cave walls to movies on widescreen televisions, we keep doing the same thing: listening to stories. And while we want to be entertained, we keep looking for the same thing: truth, the kind that matters, the kind that tells us that we are not alone, that others have been here before us, and that life can be better, or if it does get worse, that we can bear it.

Mountains with Blowing RockMaybe Jesus on that mountain was just a symbol, a metaphor. That is fine, we need our symbols, and we need our stories to help us understand our world. Maybe it all really happened, and Moses and Elijah stepped through some wall that separates us from all that we cannot touch in this world. Maybe we are always surrounded by light and voices, angels and demons, and it is just that we do not have the eyes to see them.

None of that matters, not really. What matters is what truth we manage to take in, to carry away with us.

When we are up there in the light, it matters that we remember the folks who are lying in the dust. When we’re the ones who have been knocked in the dirt, it matters that there is light up on the mountain. And sometimes we just need to hear the stories, because stories hold more truth than rules ever could.

Below is an excerpt from my novel I,John. The story from Mark’s Gospel is retold from the points of view of two characters: Adriel, an angel, and John, one of the three disciples invited up onto the mountain. Sometimes just hearing a story told in a different way helps us to hear something new. I hope you enjoy it.


 

Adriel

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.
John

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.

I, John cover image