Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Reading for the Feast of the Ascension (a little late)

Mary stared into the glowing center of the disappearing cloud, all that now remained to be seen. She stared until the voice in her heart had convinced her eyes he was truly gone. Until the whitish blue of the sky began to look like the still surface of a lake when the wind quieted and allowed it to rest.
She looked around at the others. Their faces were crowded with unspoken questions. Mary looked at the place where he had been standing only moments before. A few blades of grass were still bending slowly upward from the release of his weight. She could trace the outlines of his feet in the morning’s heavy dew. Simon of Bethsaida stood silent, his bushy, unkempt hair flying in the wind and his weather-creased face cocked toward the empty sky, as if he might read there a cipher that could explain everything. But all that stirred in the morning air on the Olivet hillside was the breeze sifting among them, gently tossing the foxtail and wild barley on its way down the slope toward the
Kidron ravine.
 Mary looked out across the cityscape, which spread from the walls bounding the far summit of the Kidron valley, across the crest of the Temple Mount, and all along the sides of the Zion hill and its surroundings. The towers of the temple glowed reddish gold in the rising sunlight and the sea of rooftops was bathed in the peaceful light of morning. Jerusalem looked as she always did, as if nothing astounding had taken place just outside her walls, as if this leave-taking were no different than any other. Mary wondered how this could be. How could a single moment utterly alter the world of this small group huddled on a hillside and leave everything else untouched?
 If the length of a life could be measured in partings, surely Mary had lived far beyond the years allotted a simple woman from Magdala. She thought of the black afternoon­—forty days now, was it—when with delicate, horrified care the men tugged his corpse, bled white from the wrists, the ankles, the black-crusted gash in his side, down from the cross. She could still hear the noise his arms made as they were pulled free from the spikes and flapped limp against his bluish belly. She still remembered the way his head lolled back and forth as they carried him to the house of the wealthy man from Arimathea, the one who was of the Council of Seventy. She had walked behind them, fighting for each breath. How could it be? How could hope be so thoroughly slain? How could this man, of all men, be dead?
 And when they had closed him in the tomb and rolled the stone over the doorway, she had buried something with him, something she had lost long before and he had rekindled in her, something that was now killed again, killed forever; something precious and irretrievable.
Had she mischosen once again?
Mary walked over and stood beside his mother. Like Simon, the old woman still peered into the sky. Should she take her hand? Mary wondered. Just then, the older woman heaved a quavering sigh and looked around at the younger Mary. She was smiling and tears meandered down her wrinkled cheeks. The two women clasped hands.
 Mary turned away from the older woman and back toward the walls of the city. There was something gone, but was it lost? Or had he taken it with him as a remembrance? There was a sadness, but something about it was different in a way she didn't understand. Again she looked at the others. Yes, it was there. Even young john looked less downcast than puzzled, as if he were trying to remember the second line of a verse he had heard long ago.
 He has finished what he came to do, and he has left. You must go on as best you can.
 But not alone. He promised.
 And then, as had happened so often in these last days, the scent of myrrh filled her mind, and she remembered the light that was everywhere on them, that was corning from them, that was them.
 Mary heard unfamiliar voices and looked up to see two strangers speaking with Simon and some of the other men. There was something about them that was at once unusual and known. Their words sounded strange to Mary’s ears, but their meaning folded gently into her understanding, as if a place had been made ready there. He will come again, just as he has gone. They pointed down the hill, toward the city. And then Simon and the others were going toward the path that led to the road that entered Jerusalem from Bethany. They all followed.


 They were coming into Jerusalem on this same road, just before that last Passover. It was the day after that glorious, frightening day when all of Judea seemed to be littering his path with palm branches, hailing him as the son and heir of David and Solomon. That day they walked past some small freeholder's homestead, and he noticed a fig tree near the door of the hut. Some of the men were arguing among themselves under the guise of speaking to him, but they stopped when he suddenly left the road and walked over to the tree. "I am hungry," he said in a loud, firm voice. He had that look he often got: broad-shouldered, his feet set wide beneath him, eyes glittering with some inner intent. She knew he was trying to tell them something. She thought she often knew before the men did.
 He turned to the tree. "This tree has no fruit, only leaves." Again he turned to look at them. By now, of course, they had straggled to the side of the road, standing in a loose semicircle, all glancing at each other, trying to see who might be the first to guess the meaning of whatever he was about to enact. The woman who lived in the hut had come outside to see what all the commotion was about.
 He jabbed a finger at the tree. "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" And he stalked back to the road and set off again toward Jerusalem. They followed along in his wake. "What is the meaning?" James bar-Alphaeus murmured behind his hand to Judas of Kerioth. "It is not yet the end
of Nisan! Figs will not be ripe for weeks. Why would he—"
 Judas had shrugged and shaken his head, she remembered. "Who knows why he does anything?" he said. She remembered looking back over her shoulder as they went. The woman stood in her doorway, watching them go.
 That was the day he railed against the money changers in the temple courtyard, the day the sons of Annas and the other temple rulers learned to fear and hate him, the day they began with renewed determination to plot his downfall.
 And the next day, as they were passing the same way, the fig tree, green and healthy the day before, was as dry and withered as an abandoned nest. "Rabbi, look!" Simon said. "That is the tree you cursed only yesterday!" The woman from the hut was examining the tree, but when she saw him she hurried back inside, making the sign against the evil eye.
 He went on to speak some words about faith, prayer, and forgiveness, but Mary was troubled by the sight of the tree, blasted for no other wrong than failing to bear out of season. That he had the authority to deny life to the tree surprised her not at all; who should know better than she what potency lay within him? But she had never before seen him use his power to smite—only to heal, only to bless. There was something more here, she sensed, and yet it lay beyond her.


 As they filtered through the crowds milling about the Sheep Gate, as they ducked warily past the turrets of the Antonia Fortress, Mary felt a tendril of understanding. "He will come again," the men had said—and her heart had told her it was so, even before the two had spoken.
Everything was changed. They might no longer trust the familiar times, the seasons to which they had become accustomed. Life was no longer to be taken for granted—nor death. Well might a healthy fig tree wither, and a barren womb bear fruit. Well might a tomb become a birthplace.  

This excerpt is from Daughter of Jerusalem, a novel of Mary Magdalene, by Thom Lemmons. To see other titles by this author, please visit

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review, _The Book of Strange New Things_, by Michel Faber

As a person of faith and--as I like to tell myself, at least--a person of some intellect, I found in Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things that rarest of works: a modern novel that embraces Christianity without defending it, ridiculing it, fawning over it, sensationalizing it, or glossing over its
problems, either historical and contemporary. Set in a future that, while including interstellar travel, still borrows uncomfortably from the dystopian trends all too evident in this morning's headlines, Faber's tale is inhabited by characters to whom the author has granted as much free will as any Supreme Creator or Arminian could possibly wish. And the inhabitants of this novel--both human and alien--make full-spectrum use of that perilous gift.

Peter Leigh, the protagonist, is a minister who is a recovered alcoholic, drug addict, and petty thief. His wife, Beatrice, is a nurse. Remarkably, I found very little to criticize in Peter's theology; his Christianity is not overbearing, uncharitable (he is respectful, mirabile dictu, to Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists), naive, or historically uninformed. In short, he is exactly the sort of Christian that I, personally, would enjoy meeting and perhaps having as a close friend.

"This is a novel that raises more questions than it answers ... "

Nor is the Leighs' faith timid; Peter is chosen by the mysterious USIC Corporation to be a Christian missionary to the planet Oasis, a human-habitable world in a different part of the galaxy that is occupied by a strange, humanoid race, some of whom have evinced an unaccountable and fervent desire to embrace the Christian faith.

Along the way, we learn not only of Peter's many shortcomings and failings, both potential and actual, but also of the fragility of faith in the face of overwhelming catastrophe. Peter and Bea's marriage is stretched to the breaking point. On Oasis (which, it turns out, is anything but), Peter and the other inhabitants of the human outpost are spared none of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and their reactions to events, both external and internal, chart the full range of possibilities, from placid acceptance to rage. At the same time as we learn the motivation behind the passion of the  Oasans (the human name for the planet's original inhabitants) to embrace Christ's teachings, they also remain remote, mysterious, aloof, and, well, alien.

In other words, this is a novel that raises more questions than it answers, that leaves the reader busy composing his or her own ending, considering the many possible sequels. It does what any great story does: it holds up a mirror to our own lives, and causes us to ask, "What if ... ?"

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Jabez, a New Ebook, and Offended Sensibilities

It appears that before long, I will be releasing the third ebook under my little cottage-industry imprint, Homing Pigeon Publishing. That title will be Jabez: A Novel

Funny thing about this book: I wrote it at the suggestion--actually, more like the urging--of my publisher at the time, which also happened to be the publisher for the wildly successful Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. Bruce's book has been lauded and panned, usually based on the lauder's enthusiasm for the perceived blessings generated by Wilkinson's proposed program of praying the brief prayer (found in 1 Chronicles 4:10) regularly, or else the panner's dim view of the mechanistic, genie-in-a-bottle theology some have perceived as the book's main teaching. Along the way, it sold over nine million copies worldwide, spawning its own industry, complete with a generous supply of derivative products.

The thing is, I don't hold with the so-called prosperity gospel. Whether my publisher realized it or not, I had no intention of writing a novel about Jabez that preached such a doctrine. And honestly, when you're writing a novel--even a really short one, like this--on a person in the Bible about whom there are precisely 2 verses containing 63 words, it doesn't take Einstein to figure out that you're 
going to be supplying some extra material. In other words, it was pretty much up to me, the storyteller, to decide about Jabez's personality, his life story, his theology, his relationships ... everything that makes him a fully realized character.

"The opposite of faith is not doubt--it's self-satisfaction."

So, I wrote the little novel, and it did pretty well ... admittedly, largely on the heels of Pastor Wilkinson's publishing phenomenon. But the folks referenced above who lauded said phenomenon--the handful of them who read my story--didn't take too kindly to my portrayal of the main character.

You see, I decided that my Jabez would be a person who had really experienced pain--a lot of it. He
would be a person who had heard things about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but only second- or third-hand (which, during the periods of religious apostasy spoken of in the Old Testament book of Judges, seems a likely scenario). He would be a person who came to the kind of faith needed to pray his famous prayer, but gradually, haltingly, and not without relapses into doubt such as even the most sincere believers still experience (see, for example, the painful, honest revelations in the diaries of Mother Teresa, published after her death).

I even got a copy of the book that was returned to the publisher after the purchaser had scrawled things on it: "Fake, like Hollywood!" "Coward!" "What a despicable way to make $$$ from Pastor Wilkinson's true book!" and the like. Apparently, this individual felt pretty strongly that I had profaned the Holy with my novel. I keep that copy on my shelf to remind me that not everyone will admire something I've written--even those few who actually notice it.

Be that as it may, I have elected not to tone down or change the narrative in my novel. I happen to believe that the opposite of faith is not doubt--it's self-satisfaction. So, look out, world: here comes Jabez--again.