What We Leave Behind

Third Sunday After the Epiphany | Mark 1:14-20

 Lectionary Project

What We Leave Behind

“Follow me,” he said. We don’t know how many people heard the invitation, if it was an invitation. We don’t know how many people said no, or said nothing at all, turning their heads, their backs, choosing the path they were already on as though continuing on that path were not itself a choice.

We know of some who said yes. Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John, these four and a few others. Of the ones who followed him, a dozen or so men and a few women had names that we know. Some remain unnamed, unknown in our own time.

For those who got up and followed Jesus, did they know what they were doing? Did they mean to make a lifetime commitment, to leave their professions and livelihoods to follow this man? That is the version we are often told. Could it be that they were only intending to walk along the beach with him for a while, to see what he had to say that day?

Looking ahead, what did they know of their future? Looking back, did they know what they left behind?

IM000208.JPGFollowing God. It’s hard to make sense of those words in this modern age. Bright people tell us that gods are mythic expressions of our own minds or of our collective unconscious, and ironically it seems that our highest social goal is the expression of self. Believing in an actual God is regarded by many as the purview of the dimwitted, the obsession of the unenlightened, those among us too backward to think through to the conclusion that God was made in our image and not the other way around.

Yet some of us pray. In the midst of our doubts, we pray. In the midst of our uncertainty, we hope. In the fog of our unknowing, we follow, walking behind a God we cannot see.

They did not know, when they got up to follow this man Jesus, that they were making a good choice. They may not have thought of it as more than a lark, an afternoon diversion. Even if they had heard him talking to the crowds and seen the things he could do, there was plenty of room for doubt. Years later, after many more days and years of following than they had perhaps intended, they had seen so much, known the presence of God in their lives.

Surf Even so, they must have had regrets, wondered whether they had made the right choices. If those earliest disciples had refused to follow Jesus that day, would they have known what they missed? Would they have known, saying no, what they were leaving behind?

We do not know which of our choices are good ones, not usually, and almost never at the time that we make them. We do not even know which of our choices are important, which ones will change our lives. We may think that the choice of a job or a school or even a spouse is important, and it is, so far as it goes. We may think that talking to a stranger in an airport or giving a coffee to a street person or picking up a book to read are small things.

Sometimes the least of these will change our lives the most in the end, and we may never know what we have left behind.


The disciple John had many years to reflect on his choices. Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John – the passage is in the voice of John himself, looking back on his decision to get up and follow the man Jesus. I hope you enjoy it.

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

Most of all, I dreamed 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 is available now from booksellers everywhere!

Save 30% on Amazon – today only!


Save 30% on Amazon – today only!

I, John

30% off at Amazon! I just learned that for the rest of today (Sunday, November 30) you can save 30% on I,John in hardback or paperback. (It doesn’t work on the Kindle version.) Just use the promo code HOLIDAY30 at checkout.

Of course, you could use that code to buy any book that Amazon offers, but with I,John available, why would you…?

Here’s the link–



Holy Cross  |  John 3:13-17, Numbers 21:4-9


Snake Under GlassThe story of the bronze snake comes from the exodus journey of the Israelites. Poisonous snakes (literally ‘fiery serpents’) in the wilderness were biting people. Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole where it could be seen. When any of the Israelites were bitten by snakes, they were saved by looking up at this bronze serpent on a pole.

Like the story of Moses’ staff turning into a snake to impress the Egyptians, it was magic.

The ancient texts do not explain how this system worked. The stories simply demonstrate the presence of God among a chosen people. These are stories of power, showing how God intervened in the normal working of the world to deliver people out of their troubles.

We like these stories. A powerful God acts to save people with miracles. Yet, we feel removed from them, sensing that this is not how God works any more. We see no parting of the seas, no water from the rock, no manna from heaven, and we have no magic bronze serpents to heal us. Even by the time of Jesus, these stories were remote, part of a distant past.

Then John pulls out this old image of a serpent on a pole and applies it to the life and death of Jesus, as though this literary artifact were a prophetic image of the messiah. What are we to make of it?

We might offer many explanations, one as good as the next. We may be more honest and say that we do not know.

We do not know. That is something we should admit more often. If we believe we understand a thing, we stop thinking about it. Libraries are full of explanations of what Jesus did, of what his life meant, of what happened when he was lifted up on the cross for everyone to see. Yet, the Gospel simply says that this is how God worked—again, there is no explanation, or very little. Most of the explanations have been supplied by later writers, not by scripture.

We look too much at our explanations and too little at Jesus.

We think we understand, and so we stop paying attention. The third chapter of John is a perfect example. We explain serpents as symbols of evil and of temptation. Yet of all the many symbols available, John pointed to the bronze serpent on a pole as an image of Jesus on the cross. How does that fit within our popular soteriology?

Explanation is not faith. Explain less, and look to God.

Here is a chapter from I, John, a new novel just released. As it happens, the serpent imagery of John’s Gospel plays a part:


I saw him coming along the street with a lamp in his hand. Even though the sun had gone down and there was little light, I could tell he was well dressed, well made sandals on his feet. He had been at the temple, had been with the Pharisee group who were talking amongst themselves. He had looked up and seen us, and while the others seemed unimpressed with us, this man had met our eyes and acknowledged us with a simple nod of his head.

Nicodemus was his name, and he came asking to speak with Jesus. Actually, he came asking to speak with the Master, an odd approach given Nicodemus’ age and his own position of respect. Jesus received him without comment, neither demurring from the title of rabbi nor appearing flattered.

The old man began with a bow, and said to Jesus that he and others like him knew that Jesus was from God, that he acted and spoke from God.

“We know that no one can do these things unless he has been sent by God,” said Nicodemus. “These are the signs of a prophet.”

This was more like it, we thought. Finally, Jesus was getting the sort of recognition that he deserved, though it was not in the temple. Still, if such a one as this man would come and speak to Jesus this way, then surely the others would follow?

We understood so little, so badly.

Jesus sat staring at the fire, not even acknowledging the old man. Nicodemus began to look at one and then another of us for an indication of what to do. None of us knew. Then Jesus turned his back on the old man and walked to the window. He stood there staring out at the stars.

“Truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born into the kingdom of God. If you would see God, you must be born of God.”

Nicodemus looked around at us for some idea, but we didn’t know what to make of it either. Finally, the old man walked over to Jesus.

“How is it that a man may be born of God?” Nicodemus asked. “I have no mother left to me, and I am old.”

I also hoped for some explanation.

“You must be born of water and of the Spirit,” Jesus said. “What is born of the flesh is only flesh, and what is born of the water has been made clean, and what is born of the Spirit indeed is spirit. If you would see God, then you must be born of the flesh and of the water and of the Spirit.”

Jesus looked at Nicodemus as though he should know these things. I was thinking that nobody knew these things, because they were crazy.

Then came the weirdest part of all.

“If you would know that which is above then you must be born of that which is above. You are born of the flesh, and you see the things of the flesh. The wind blows, and you hear the sound of it, and so there is hope for you. Yet you do not know from where the wind comes or to where it is going.”

No one was eating or drinking now. All of us were quiet, trying to find some way to make sense of what we were hearing. This was an audience with one of the leaders of the temple, and Jesus was saying such things as to make himself sound crazy.

“Are you amazed at these things?” Jesus asked. “These things are nothing to what you will see. I tell you things about the flesh and you do not understand. How will you understand if I tell you things about that which is above? If you cannot look at the flesh and see what is within, how shall you look upon the faces of those in heaven and understand what you see there? No one has entered into the heavenly realm except those who are of the heavenly realm, but the son of man is also the son of God.”

Jesus paused a moment and looked around at us. Nicodemus was quiet, his brow wrinkled in thought.

“And how will you understand when you see the son of man lifted up, as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness for the children of Israel to see? Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son of man, for though he were dead, yet shall they live. Like the serpent in the garden, so also the son of man comes to give knowledge to all who would be the children of God.”

No one spoke, least of all Nicodemus. I was clueless, and from his expression so was he. Even we who followed Jesus wondered whether something we had just heard might not offend the teachers of the temple, and we knew nothing compared to this man. He seemed amazed by what he had heard.

Jesus looked around first at one of us then at another, until I thought that he must have gazed into the eyes of all who were there.

“God loves you all. Did you not understand? For God loves you and has given you the son so that you might know that the Father loves you. If you have faith in the son, then you walk in the eternal life. Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son and believe be saved. Those who do not seek my voice are already lost, for even as they have not heard and do not listen, so also they shall not enter into life, for they have not heard the words of life. My words that I give to you, these are truth and life, and those who believe them shall never be condemned. For this is the judgment of God, that light has come into the world, and people love darkness rather than the light, for they know their own deeds. Those who come into the light are of the light. Those who come in darkness are yet of the darkness.”

Jesus stopped speaking, and suddenly it seemed as though he was pointing at Nicodemus, though he was not. He was not even looking at the old man, but all of us were looking at him and at the lamp that he held in his hand. He had come in the darkness, truly enough, but surely he came to find the truth?

“I will think on your words,” said Nicodemus. “I confess that I do not understand them, but I feel that there is truth in them.”

“I am truth,” said Jesus. “And I am the way that you have come to seek.”

Nicodemus seemed as though dazed by this answer. He took a step back and opened his mouth to speak, but he said nothing. He turned and walked slowly away.

After the old man left, I sat by the fire and wondered what it could mean. I could not get the image out of my mind, Moses standing there with a snake on a pole, holding it up for the people to see. I never understood the story, not even when the Rabbis tried to explain it, and I did not understand why Jesus had started talking about it.

Later, most of the others had gone to sleep. Jesus was still standing by the open window, looking up at the stars. I could not sleep and sat staring at the embers burning themselves down. Suddenly I realized that Jesus was standing beside me. He was watching the fire, then looked down at me.

“You are puzzled about the image of the snake,” he said. It was not a question. I nodded.

“One day, you will see me lifted up so that all the people can see me. That day, you will understand what I meant,” he said. He went walking outside after that. He often would go for walks by himself, sometimes in the night, as a way to have time alone, away from the crowds, away from all of us.

That day came, and I did see him lifted up above the crowd, hanging on a cross. I saw them stick a spear in his side, saw them taunt him, and I saw him die. And he was right that I remembered he had spoken about being lifted up, and he was right that I remembered about Moses and the snake, but he was wrong about my understanding any of it.

The snake was evil. Everyone knew that. There was a snake in the garden. It was the story we learned from childhood. The snake had lied and brought evil into Eden, or else it knew where to look for it once it got near enough. But Moses’ staff also turned into a great snake, like the Egyptian magic. And the Lord told Moses to lift up an image—an image of all things—of a snake to save the people from snake bites. Like pagans. And Jesus laid claim to the same image, a snake on a pole, as though it were a good thing.

One day I realized that he might have been right. Maybe the snake wasn’t evil. Maybe the snake was simply wise, if there ever had been a snake. Maybe it recognized that a moment of realization had come along for the humans in the garden, if there ever had been a garden. What if the snake in the story whispered that first revelation, the moment when humans embraced their mortality and their self-awareness? And so it helped them to make the next step, to understand the consequences of choice. What if there was no curse? What if there was no sin, no original fault, no first cause of our mortality? What if they simply left the garden of ignorance and walked out to embrace their new knowledge, to embrace the blessings of work and of children, the only two things that live beyond us?

That left me standing, weeping, staring at him on that cross, lifted up for the sake of others. It was a moment of revelation, God dying on a cross, hanging on a tree made by men. The good and wise snake had once again come to pull humans along, to raise us to a new understanding. When Jesus died, it was finished, this work of the old snake, opening the eyes that could bear to see something new—God himself hanging dead on a pole at the hands of humans—and all that I could do was weep.

It was Nicodemus who came to take him down from the cross. He brought burial clothes, brought permission from the Romans to take the body down to wrap it before sundown, brought a donkey to carry him once again along the streets. I held Jesus while the old man wrapped the clean cloth around him, holding Mary back from his body long enough to cover him, to clothe him in death. We brought the body to Nicodemus’ tomb, newly carved no doubt for the old man himself, but he had not foreseen this day when he bought it. None of us knew what God had foreseen, had planned, in the carving of this tomb, if anything. We carried the body inside the darkening vault, and we laid him on the stone bed carved into the rock. We stood there for a moment, mindful of the setting sun, mindful that we should seal the tomb and go to our homes. Why we cared about the start of the Sabbath was beyond me. Here in this tomb, it no longer mattered what day came with the setting of the sun. We had buried God.


Find I, John on NetGalley

Clouds - I, John cover

Jacket_PerfectBound_Rev1Find I, John on NetGalley

Want to review a copy of I, John on NetGalley? Ever heard of NetGalley.com? Ever heard of (or been) a “professional reader”?

If you are a professional reader, such as a bookseller or reviewer (or you would like to become one,) here’s a link to the NetGalley posting of I, John:



If you’re wondering, NetGalley.com is a place where authors and publishers let folks who are willing to post reviews (or who are in a position to stock a book in a library or store) obtain access to a free digital copy to read. Authors and publishers get reviews to use in advertising, and the readers get free access to the work to see what they think of it. Here’s a summary from the NetGalley webpage:

NetGalley is an innovative, easy-to-use website that provides digital galleys free of charge to reviewers, bloggers, media, librarians, booksellers and educators. NetGalley helps reduce our environmental impact while also giving you faster access to our titles!

Register now at www.NetGalley.com and search the catalog to view our available galleys. Then just hit the “Request” button for the title(s) you want.

Once you request the title, you’ll just need to wait until we approve your request, and then the galley will appear on your NetGalley homepage (under “New on My Shelf”). You will receive an email notification once your request is approved, so that you’ll know to login to view the galley.

You’ll have the option to download the galley to your computer or read it on a variety of devices. You can find step-by-step instructions for each here.

Be sure that you download Adobe Digital Editions (the program you’ll need to view our galley) first – it’s quick and free: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/

I, John is available now!

Jacket_PerfectBound_Rev1I, John is available now! You can order it clothbound or paperback, and you can have it today in eBook format to read on your iPad or Nook or other device. Here are links to booksellers already listing the title:


Barnes and Noble

Apple iBook Store (iTunes)

More links will be available soon, as additional stores offer it, and I will try to keep updating the links as the title makes it’s way into the system. The world of publishing and books is fascinating. It is like a house that has been built over many years, and some parts take a little longer to reach.

Hopefully, I, John will be listed in the next few days by more local independent booksellers on Indiebound.org and other sites, and I would be delighted to add links to any independent booksellers listing the title as available, either on the shelf or to order. If your local bookstore does not have I, John on the shelf and you would like to order it from them, giving them the ISBNs would be the easiest way for them to find it:

ISBN 978-0-9906426-9-5 — Clothbound (6x9in)

ISBN 978-0-9906426-1-9 — Trade Paperback (5.25x8in)

ISBN 978-0-9906426-0-2 — e-Book (except the Kindle version only carries the Amazon ASIN of B00N43YCKO)

I, John has also just now been added to Goodreads.com so if you like the novel (or if you hate it, though I really hope you like it,) please take a moment add a review—here’s a link to the Goodreads page.

Thanks to all of the people who have shown such interest in this novel! I hope that you enjoy it.