fiction

Journey to Bethlehem

The woman winced. Again. Her breath took on a raggedness. Her words broke through clenched teeth.

“How much farther?”

“Not much, Woman.”

He’d been mentally referring to her as woman since he found out. It helped. The woman was pregnant. The woman had a special touch from God. He was not to abandon the woman.

Woman was not an insult. But they’d agreed: it was how he loved her, saying her name. Softly. Over and over. He hadn’t said her name since he found out. Not once. If the insult cut her she didn’t let on, else she was fixed on riding out the pain.

Even after the dream Joseph couldn’t bring himself to think her name. The angel commanded: he was not to leave. In cases… like this, a quiet separation was a gift, was merciful. Some men, pious men, would have stoned her. Fashioned of jealousy and pride as he was, Joseph figured the plan was to break him first, before the inaugural wails of the infant-God made landfall. There was one reasonable expectation a man may have of his virgin wife. One.

And…in a gesture of unparalleled irony, He had them travelling. Now. He didn’t know who was punished worse: the pained one, or the witness. Every so often there was a sharp intake of breath. “Like being run through with a serrated blade,” she said, when he asked what it felt like. That was when he dropped their gear and let her ride on the back of the beast.

Never before had the donkey held anything but freight. Something told Joseph, maybe it was the lingering echo of the dream, but it told him in no uncertain terms: the beast would not buck her. The gear would be replaced. Innumerable gifts would be brought. As Joseph held the tether and trod the parched and crenulated ground, an alien certainty overtook him. A waking dream: the woman’s name was still beautiful, would always be beautiful.

A needling anxiety to get to their destination settled upon him, as if the world behind them fell away with each step, and was falling faster and faster. To Bethlehem they marched, because of the census. Caesar and his arbitrary decrees. Like sand grains they were blown with no discernible purpose to a city he no longer called home. But the unborn child would enter the world, either here in the open plain or in Bethlehem, if they could make it.

*Thanks to Michael for the heads up on this fun Christmas challenge. Michael’s son wrote a lovely little poem, and being the homeschool mom I am, I dig that. Though I have been known to write poetry, it’s usually when I’m angry. I hope the folks at Mindescapes.net don’t mind I used their image to create a flash piece. Want to join? Go to Mindescapes Christmas Challenge 2017.

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Personal Journey

To You. From the Turkey

This Thanksgiving, stop. Halt the cooking, put your flour-dusted, pumpkin-splattered ear up to the knobby pink mountain of white meat and listen.

As you scoop your third helping of baked marshmallows with a dab of sweet potatoes, and your nether regions fuse to the chair, take note.

When your uncle walks in wearing a Make America Great Again hat and you’re tempted to rip it off his head and challenge him to a proper duel, pause.

When they’re late. Again. And the glory has congealed on the stove, and you’ve taken so many “test” bites you could be the one in the oven, and you wonder how come, if you can cook an entire dinner and be on time, why can’t they shower and show up on time? When you’re tempted to walk out on the whole thing, mark the headless guest of honor.

In the quiet moments of Thanksgiving Day 2017, hear what the turkey has to say:

No matter how pretty and right you think you are, time and circumstance will eventually catch up with you, and you will be shoved someplace where it’s very, very hot. – Brian Lageose

This is strait talk from the de-feathered guest of our tabletops. Want to read it elsewhere? Try Luke 16:19-31.

Admittedly, I lifted Brian’s quote quite out of context and used it for my own agenda. But Picasso has my back with his famous quote: Good artists copy; great artists steal. And honestly, Brian’s turkey has a Cassandra aura that begs to be repurposed. No matter how pretty, how polished, how published (for my writer-friends), how smart or powerful, how fat we or our wallets are—time and circumstance…

The good news is, we don’t have to be shoved someplace very, very hot, even upon being overtaken by time and circumstance. Thank you, Jesus and free will.  Every Thanksgiving I’m drawn again into the familiar glow of gratitude that God sent His only Son. And now, let’s end on a moment of laughter (or, depending on your tastes, disgust) I offer the following absurdity:

Personal Journey

The Things I Carry

“What’s it like, being dead?”

“…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.” – From Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This quote bowled me over. Not just because it’s a fresh look at death, but because it captures my feelings. While I’m writing I Trespass, I’m “inside a book nobody’s reading.”

Which is to say, sometimes I feel dead.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad dead. Let’s pretend there’s good dead and bad dead, and this is more of the with-my-fellow-dead, dead. My characters and I are someplace everybody else isn’t.

In the Bible, the word death is never defined by lexicographers as annihilation or extinction or even unconsciousness, but as separation. And that distinction helps me wrap my mind around death. I hope it helps you too. So while I’m writing my book nobody’s reading, I feel a separation– like I have a secret or a double life. This is the thing I carry: my story. The one for which I presently labor, and the ones waiting in the queue of my imagination.

Yesterday I finished a short story based on a family member. I began writing with real names and only at the end did I do a find/replace. (Well look at that, some members of my family are paying attention.) Keeping as much truth as possible for as long as possible helps me in the initial slog-through of the story. Once I get momentum, truth and fiction blur. I mash together an uncle and a nephew into a new little boy of my own creation. The truth is, I had a feeling I wanted to convey. I can’t even name it, but it’s the way you feel when you’re unprotected and it begins to rain and home is a long way off. It’s one to which I keep returning– children and the forces that play upon them. I have an uncle who committed suicide, and I’ve often wondered how that went down the day they were told. Rather than ask (what fun is that?), I made up how it went down that day, the day they were told.

Anyway, I wanted so badly to share this story with somebody, anybody who could say yes, I get it! or no, you’re unclear, etc. I often draft my children into literary service. Gabe is a precocious twelve year old and has often shown me plot holes or character flaws, but this story is rather sordid. I spared him. Tory, my mature and insightful writing critic is overwhelmed with school and work, and only a selfish brute would put a manuscript under her nose (for the second time this week), so I didn’t. I thought of putting a call out to my friends on Facebook or WordPress along the lines of Ahoy! Anybody sitting around wishing for a beta read? The deadline is October 1st, and I need immediate assistance… But also a part of me wanted to just ship it off, which I did.

Writing is also like war time communication, pamphlets dropped by the thousands on an uncaring population. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki no one bothered to read the warnings dropped from American planes that said something along the lines of: Evacuate or die. And my missives are not nearly that important. You can imagine how few people read them. Well, maybe you can’t, but I can. You’d think the inverse relationship between labor output and actual reads would send me running to another, more impactful activity. On the contrary, If I can’t write something wonderful I know no one will read, I’ll write about the process of writing something I think is wonderful I know no one will read… Exhibit A: this post.

I meant to write about a harvest, which was my prompt from Carrot Ranch. Unfortunately, I got side-tracked. When I think harvest, the first thing that comes to mind is the harvest of souls talked about in Matthew 9:37. Jesus compares proselytizing to harvesting. Actually, harvesting is one of God’s favorite metaphors. At the end of all things, He says, there will be a great harvest where the wheat and the weeds will be gathered and sorted and– woe to you weeds out there. That’s the gist. Don’t be a weed.

Because separation doesn’t feel so cozy as a book nobody’s reading.

 

 

 

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Bible

Title: The Holy Bible 
Authors: 40+ men over 1500 years  
Genre: Non-fiction  
Publisher: God  
Release Date: 1535 
Pages: 1,200ish

 

Simply filling out the specs I’m picking a fight. My choice to label The Bible non-fiction communicates:

  1. Ignorance to secular scientists (Gah! Join the 21st century!)
  2. Intolerance to other religions (god wrote our book too)
  3. Combativeness to atheists (your god is what’s wrong with this world).

All that, over genre. No wonder the reviews are either 1. mocking or 2. pertain to the version and/or ergonomic design. No one reviews The Holy Bible for substance. Enter, me. 🙂 …little ole nobody gonna review God’s letter to humanity.

Authorship of the Bible is attributed to some forty bearded men and God. Hand-in-glove is the way it’s described, the men being God’s gloves. I personally struggled with accepting the Bible as written by God. Here’s how it went down, an analogy because I love literary devices:

I was tired. This chair looked really comfortable, but I didn’t trust it. I’d been warned against chairs: they were fine for decoration, but one didn’t actually sit. That was taking things too far. But like I said, I was tired of standing, and the chair looked cozy. How could I know whether or not it would hold? Might there not be a sharp spike just under the upholstery? I was taught in school about chairs; People like Jim Jones and Jim Baker sat in chairs (a murderer and a thief, respectively). But I’d lately learned some great people sat in chairs too. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. I scrutinized my chair from all angles. I asked other chair-sitters how they liked their chair and did it hold? Everything one could do to ascertain the soundness of this chair, I did. Except, I would not sit.

Talking with a chair-sitter one day*, she asked, “Don’t you believe this chair will hold you?”

I said I didn’t know.

To my surprise, she said, “Then we’re done here. There is nothing more I can do for you until you decide to sit in the chair.” I thought she was going to convince me about the chair. No, the only way to know for sure was to sit. She left. I got desperate.

I wanted the comfort of the chair, so I made a conscious decision to trust it. This was a leap in my faith. I had read the Bible before, as a work of literature like Dante or Shakespeare. Now I would read it as the answer to my question: why am I here? I would trust what it had to say. They call it the trust of a child. If you’re new to the Bible you have a decision to make before you open it. Is it or is it not Truth? Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” It is not enough to ask. One must pursue truth like a lover.

A pursuit is not a meandering stroll or a meme search. It’s not a glance or a nap or an infusion. Think, stalker.

This image may help (warning: literary device #2): imagine you’re digging for buried treasure. When you’re digging, you sweat. You grunt. You’re not having much fun sometimes, but you’re convinced there’s something worth it, so you keep on digging. You want the treasure more than you want to rest. You throw up a prayer or a curse for your aching muscles, but on you press. This is how the Bible can be. Before you even open it, you must believe there is treasure in those pages. Proverbs 24 advises: seek [wisdom] as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures. 

Post-hole-digger

Not that there aren’t strategies. One can dig for treasure with her bare hands (not recommended). One can use a spade (better). Or one can use a post-hole-digger. Here is your complimentary Bible post-hole-digger:

  1. Start with the book of John in the New Testament. I didn’t listen to this advice and began with Genesis– digging with my bare hands. Thing is, the Bible is also a sort of ledger of Jewish history. There are verbose lists of family lines and architectural instructions and how-to de-germ people and/or your dwellings. Lots of sifting to get to the treasure. I should have listened, story of my life.
  2. As you read, write down questions or observations. One of my husband’s observations was the following insult: “…whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32b) Here was God, it seemed to my husband, rebuking him for his willingness to marry a single mom, adopt her baby girl, and love her as his own. Some people would’ve shut the book then and there or tossed it out the window. But my husband believed there was something worth pressing for, so he kept at it.
  3. Watch expectantly for God to answer your questions through His Word, through “random” people, and through “coincidental” events. Make one small step toward Him, and He will run to you.
  4. Record what happens.
  5. After John, read the other gospels and then the rest of the letters of the New Testament.
  6. Read the Psalms, one-a-day as you do this whole exercise.
  7. You will most likely find yourself undone at some point. The Bible is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. (Hebrews 4:12) It pierces your heart to be convinced God suffered and died for you. Head knowledge is not the same as heart. We can read about Syrian refugees, but only pictures seem to enter the heart.

This is what happens when you pursue faith. If a human photographer can capture a moment that so awakens our compassion, imagine what God can do if you fix your eyes upon Him.

Trusting the Bible is like sitting in that chair. What I didn’t realize until I sat, was that this wasn’t just some stationary chair in a heavenly lounge. I found the chair to be that of a co-pilot, in the cockpit of some marvelous engine that has taken me places I never would have imagined. I don’t mean exotic earthly places, though I’ve been to those as well. The Bible, my faith, my Lord, the friends and family He’s given me, the meaningful whole that is my life– have taken me to emotionally beautiful places.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. – Matthew 13:44

Usually I rate books numerically according to readability and merit. Because I consider the Bible to be outside the realm of ordinary books, I would not dare assign it a number. None is high enough.

But read it, I challenge you… and the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7

*The can-I-trust-this-Bible? conversation happened with a lovely woman who shared her faith with me, Debbie Spink. I remember being stunned she didn’t try harder to convince me the Bible was true or cajole me or debate with me. Her dismissal made me realize I wanted peace more than I wanted to win a debate. After I stewed for several months and gulped down the New Testament several times over, I met with her husband, Pastor Ken Spink. He fielded my gazillion questions and/or objections to the Christian faith.

Personal Journey

Be the Gift You Want to Get in This World

happy-gandhi-jayanti-2016-images-hd-wallpapers
“Be the change you want to see in the world” was one of Gandhi’s famous quotes.

Of all the people turned off by Christians, Gandhi is my favorite. Gandhi was perplexed that Jesus’ followers were little crazed antitheses of Him, buzzing about the world scattering judgement like pollen, condemning, wearing the cross and forgetting its dictates.

Though he was turned off by Christians, Gandhi didn’t discount the Man himself. Imitation is not an exact science: if it flatters, it also falters. We are works in progress untill the last breath. My imperfect attempts at being Jesus may be received with misunderstanding and, sometimes, offense. You’re taking this Jesus thing too far has been applied to me. Still, others would say I don’t take this Jesus thing nearly far enough.

Depends who you ask.

People are turned off by a pilgrim taking it too far because a zealot acts unpredictably, often perpetrating heinous acts against humanity: the least of which is discomfiting strangers by talking about God and the worst of which is bringing God’s judgment down upon them– literally, in the form of passenger plane bombs, explosives, etc.

I was taught a catechism of fear– not for God– but religion. Religion makes people weird at best. I learned this in social studies when we discussed Jim Jones (in early elementary school). I learned it analyzing The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter in middle school. I learned it from the nut cases dressed as Jesus, dragging huge crosses along city streets and chanting, “The end is near!”

What I learned was all true. I wasn’t told any lies. But– think Star Wars– I experienced only the dark side of the force and not the light. Half the truth is the best lie because it precludes skepticism. If my cultural experience impressed upon me a fear and loathing of impassioned religion, then did I not receive a broken bowl for a paradigm? Certainly it had the shape of usefulness, but not the essence. No wonder when I tried to pour my life experiences into it, everything leaked out and I was left holding air.

At age 27 I got desperate and decided, against the teaching of my youth, to take this Jesus thing too far. What did that look like? Did I have to renounce logic, sacrifice a chicken, or roll around the altar babbling unintelligible oaths? Hardly.

I picked up a Bible and began reading the book of John. I’d been church hopping, a spiritual Goldilocks searching for a fit. I sat through many a pep talk, incantations, scripted kneelings and standings, services full of buttoned up people whose goodwill didn’t even last into the parking lot. One day I met a man who genuinely, ardently loved his god. Here was a thing I’d never seen before: the other side of the religion equation. It goes without saying you can’t just walk into any church and experience true faith, but walk into enough, and you’ll eventually strike oil.

That is, if you really want to. I hope you do. Don’t let the imperfections of Christ’s followers dissuade you from seeking Him. For who is perfect at anything? I’ve gotten my Jesus step wrong enough times, and those are moments I’m stepping on toes. If I think it’s pollen I’m spreading, it’s my duty to double-check every now and again. The easiest error is thinking we help by spreading a loveless message of judgment. It’s not pollen when I forget to love. But in those moments I am definitely a B—-.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Gandhi and I disagree on what the message should be, but on this we find harmony: My life is my message. As the year draws to a close and our minds are on gifts, it’s a great time to ask yourself if you’ve been the gift you want to get in this world.

Don’t believe the lie that says: If God is any more than a trapping, he’s a trap. Don’t believe religion should be used as the ancients did their spice: to cover the fact that the meat’s gone bad. Jesus made a lot of people uncomfortable when He said he should be consumed. Jesus can’t be taken too far. He is meant to be the main course (John 6:54). Be a pilgrim. Take Jesus too far. That’s not what will actually happen though it may be said of you. If you merely hold out a hand, Jesus takes you too far. And it’s a lovely country.

 

 

fiction, Screwtape Still Speaks

The One Feared is the One Revered

hand-mushroom-cloud-blast-explosionI don’t want to be worshipped– I want to terrify. My rival covets worship, but I’ve never been so inclined. You could say between the two of us, I’m the humble one. And between the two of us, I’m the one providing a service: I scare you, don’t I? Scare you into looking before you cross the street, frighten you into taking the boring, bill-paying job, terrify you into aborting those inconsequential cells growing inside you because no way can you handle what’s coming down the pike, my dear. No way. Be reasonable.

What does my rival do for you? …What? He hung the celestial bodies, slapped them spinning… and what’s bedecked His resume since then? Ask the burned-up, disheveled Syrian boy. Ask the refugees. Or the republicans. Ask the four-footed critters or winged creatures whose orb is fracked and fractured and asphalted, whose space is raped. Ask, what has He done for you lately?

I never asked to be worshipped.

But to petrify, that is my game. Humanity thrives on terror. I submit The Exorcist, all things Stephen King, the Autobahn on a rainy day, and Donald Trump any day. Who delivers this exquisite fright? Yours truly. And I never ask for applause. All I ask is you not applaud my rival, not send upward looks and wide-open arms and prayers for deliverance. No one’s coming.

I want to terrify because the one feared is the one revered. The one feared– his fat, itchy finger perches awkwardly on the launch button. Did I mention North Korea in my exhibit list? Terror fuels the world, make no mistake. What scurrying when the alarm sounds, what an economic boon is war! Didn’t your mother tell you she beat you for your own good? I gave her that phrase.

[Submitted to Cracked Flash Fiction contest. As I wrote this entry, I realized my default is not to story, but to essay. The Screwtape Letters is branded deep into my subconscious, and I shift into first person essays without meaning to. What to do about that? Recently I posted about changing my novel to 1st person. I figure I should do what comes naturally while I’m floundering about. Babies don’t run the 4 by 400. When I force myself into a format, the writing screams, “I’m stilted!” Then I hate it. Then I delete it. I’ve collected quite a few rejections from CFF, perhaps because my writing is more aptly described as Cracked Flash Essay. Ha! Well, the wounded warrior pets herself and finds excuses as to why she didn’t get the gold, doesn’t she? Whatever mind games we have to play to get back out there and get rejected again.]

latin

 

Personal Journey

M is for Missionaries

MMy sister and her husband have never been what you’d call traditional. For starters they were married on the Appalacian Trail– during their thru-hike. Heather had real flowers woven into a crown, and the new couple walked under an arch of brightly colored hiking staffs, held up by the many friends they made along the way. I don’t know anyone better at making friends along the way.

Hands down, Heather and Randy are the most generous people I’ve ever known. They love to give. One day I came home to find a Vitamix on my landing, brand new and in the box. See, I’m sort of a smoothy addict. I buy up all the overripe bananas in northeast Ohio and freeze them, and I used to go through a blender every three months. No joke. Frozen bananas burn out the gears. That was before my givingest sister and brother-in-law.

They love to give and they love the Lord. How appropriate they should give the best gift there is: the good news. And Africa has always had a special place in their hearts. Ezra, their second child, was adopted from Rwanda in a three-year odyssey that I doubted would ever yield them a baby. But they didn’t doubt, and in God’s timing they brought home the baby God meant for them.

Lots of people love Jesus and love to give, but Heather and Randy have that don’t-belong-here quality. I say that in the nicest way. They don’t get bogged down in sport craziness (like some people I know…). They don’t covet the American Dream. They love simplicity and good food, taking care of the planet, and taking care of their neighbors. They are truly in love with humankind and show it in tangible, practical ways every chance they get.

Heather and Randy don’t have a specific location as of yet but are diligently testing doors and learning all they can in hopes their missionary road will light up. In February they attended a week-long conference to learn about the opportunities with African Inland Missions, the agency which will ultimately send them, Lord willing. At this point they can’t raise support because they don’t have a destination. So they wait. They pray. They wake at 5:30 AM to study Bible together.

There is a country in Africa that is the Cinderella slipper for Heather and Randy. While they wait to find it, I pray they grow into exactly the couple God wants them to be. Meanwhile, I’m thankful for the time I have my sister living close by.

Heath
The Stahleys L-R Shiloh, Heather, Ezra, Ruby, Randy (Photo Credit: Grayson Stahley)

I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory And they will declare My glory among the nations. – Isaiah 66:19