Eavesdropping on the Apostle Paul: a deadly pastime

“Where did Eutychus go, Aristarchus?”

“What’s that?” I asked, trying to concentrate on Paul’s words from the front of the room.

“Eutychus. He was right there in the window a moment ago.”

“The youngster? It’s past midnight. Perhaps he had to go home with his parents.”

“No, they are over there.” My friend Gaius pointed them out where they stood across the room. “Hold one moment. You don’t think …”

“Think what?”

Gaius stepped to the window ledge Eutychus had been sitting in.

“No!” He rushed to the door yelling, “Tell Luke to come quick!” as he ran down the stairs.

Luke stood up from his place at Paul’s side and asked, “What is it? Is someone ill?”

I looked out the window to the ground below. “It’s Eutychus. He fell. It looks like he’s dead!”

Eutychus’ mother gasped as his father took her arm. Luke made his way to the door and the room emptied as people crowded together to try to get down the two flights of narrow stairs, trapping his parents inside the room. They came to the window and leaned out.

“My boy! My boy!” His mother cried in anguish.

“Is he breathing?” I called down to Gaius, who was leaning over him. He looked up at me and shook his head.

Luke knelt beside Eutychus and placed his ear to the boy’s chest and nodded at Gaius. Paul pushed his way through the knot of people and threw himself on the body.

“What is he doing, Aristarchus?” Eutychus’ father said. “I’m going down there.” He turned to his wife. “You stay here, Miriam. His body might not look … .” He stopped and turned toward the emptying doorway.”

“No. I’m going to see my son!” She grabbed his arm and turned toward the door, frustration on her face when she saw the crowd still choking the stairwell beyond.

Paul raiseth Eutychus to life

Figures de la Bible (1728) Wikipedia

“Wait,” I called. “Paul is saying something.”

They stepped back to the window. We looked down and saw that Paul had his arms wrapped around Eutychus.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!”

Paul rolled off Eutychus and raised him up to lean against his lap. The dead boy’s eyes opened. He looked around, dazed.

“My boy! My boy!” his mother repeated her words from a moment ago, this time not in anguish but joy.

The two parents raced from the room and down the stairs.

***

Dawn broke as the meeting in that upper room came to a close. Eutychus and his parents were among the first to leave, with Luke accompanying them. Paul sat by himself and reached for some of the food left over from the small meal prepared for everyone after Eutychus’ recovery. Gaius and I were still by the window. He looked down.

“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, Aristarchus, I don’t know if I’d believe it,” he said. “Not even if our friend Luke told us.”

“He is rather a good recorder, isn’t he? I understand he has been taking notes of his travels with Paul and plans on writing another book.”

“Like the one about Jesus?” he said.

“He told me it will be about those who belong to Jesus and what they do in the kingdom of God.”

“I imagine this past night will make it into the book, then.”

“When Paul yelled, ‘Don’t be alarmed, he’s alive,’ it reminded me of one of the stories Luke tells of Jesus raising the dead.”

“You mean the little girl from the synagogue?”

“Right. Jesus told the people wailing and mourning, ‘Stop wailing. She’s not dead but asleep.’”

“But she was surely dead. Luke’s a doctor and if he thinks the reports of her death are accurate, then I take it they were accurate.”

“Yes, she was dead, yet now she lives. Jesus raised her, and now Paul has done the same by the Spirit of Christ.”

“Speaking of Paul,” Gaius said, looking over at the man eating in the corner, “when he threw himself onto Eutychus’ body another prophet came to mind.”

“Who is that, my friend?”

“Elijah and the son of that widow from Zarephath.”

“Oh, yes. He became very sick, eventually succumbing to the illness and death.”

“And then what did Elijah do? He laid himself on the boy and prayed for God’s healing even thought there was no life left in the body.”

“Three times, if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, and God gave the boy back his life. When Elijah carried him to his mother, he told her, ‘Look, your son is alive!’”

“Much like Paul last night.”

“You can see why Elijah came to my mind, just as I can see why Jesus came to yours.”

Paul stood up and crossed the room slowly to stand with us by the window.

“What are you two talking about?”

“Jesus,” I said.

“And some heroes of the faith,” Gaius added.

“Always a good topic of conversation,” Paul said. “But I have to admit that even I have had enough talking for one night. Come, friends, let us continue our journey to Ephesus and—God willing—eventually Jerusalem.”

And so we left.

***

While the dialog and some details are the product of imagination, Eutychus, Aristarchus, Gaius, and Paul’s time in Troas can be found in Acts 20.

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Lot’s Daughters and the Burdens They Bore

“Have you ever known sisters to deliver babies on the same day?” asked Hodesh.

“Never,” replied her fellow midwife, Jemima. “But if rumors are true, there is reason for this ‘coincidence.’”

“I do not traffic in rumors.”

“Of course not, Hodesh.” Jemima, the younger of the two, cleared her throat unnecessarily and placed soiled linens in a woven bag to carry to the stream for washing. “Shall I take your laundry with me while you stay to watch over the babies?”

“That would be a kindness.” Hodesh looked toward the tent where the two women lay with their newborn sons. “Have you ever seen two babies who looked more alike and yet were not twins? Remarkable.”

“Not so remarkable, I think. As I said, if rumors are true …”

“Hush, Jemima. And thank you for taking my linens.” Hodesh handed her bag over as a manner of dismissing her friend’s gossip and ducked back into the tent.

Jemima settled herself on a low rock on the streambank where other women had gathered to wash their laundry.

“So, Jemima,” one called out, “Are the women well? Are their babies healthy?”

“I would be surprised if they even lived,” another said. “Such wickedness in their family!”

Jemima, remembering Hodesh’s gentle rebuke, merely said, “They each have very healthy sons. Strong and robust little ones, and that is a blessing.”

“A blessing? This world is not fair,” the second woman said as she gathered her clean clothes and pounded her feet into the loose soil with each step up the bank to her small house nearby.

“Do not mind her words, Jemima. She is …”

“I know. I have been there for one of the deliveries, the last of the stillbirths she has suffered. Her hopes of becoming a mother are fading with each passing year.” Jemima turned her attention to a particularly soiled cloth that she plunged once more into the cool, rushing water.

***

“I am glad you returned to Zoar to have your children,” Hodesh told the new mothers. One sat up against some pillows nursing her child while her younger sister lay back with her baby already full and slumbering upon her breast. She looked to be nodding off as well.

“My sister was frightened to come into town again,” said the older sister, Paltith, “considering what we’d … after our … well, our father … .”

“Yes, yes, it would be hard to have stayed, though. You said you had lived in a cave?” asked Hodesh. “That’s certainly no place to deliver a child, let alone two on the same day. You two would have been no help to one another, and I doubt your father would have known what to do if there had been complications.”

Lot and his Daughters, Artemisia Gentileschi ca. 1635-38 (Wikipedia)

“You know of our father?”

“I recall when you three first arrived from Sodom. You barely escaped its destruction.”

“Yes, but we left again so soon I wasn’t sure if anyone remembered us.”

“That is a day few of us will forget, I’m sure.”

“And perhaps today as well. I can imagine what people are saying about our family now.” She pulled the baby off one breast and moved him to the other.

“Don’t worry about what people say. You have a healthy son and an equally healthy nephew. God has smiled on you.”

“That is gracious, Hodesh, but I heard Jemima talking to you outside the tent.”

“Then you also heard me put a stop to her chattering. She is still new to midwifing. She will learn not to judge.”

“Did I hear my name?” Jemima asked as she pulled back the tent flap and stepped inside.

“Yes. We were just saying how wonderful it is to have two strong baby boys born on one day.”

“That’s just what I was telling the women laundering by the stream.”

“You were?” said Paltith.

“Well, they wanted to gossip, but I put a stop to that.”

“Did you now?” Hodesh said with a wink toward Paltith.

“I certainly did. I put a stop to it and told them God visited his blessings upon these sisters today.”

“I suppose you must be right,” Paltith said. “I don’t know why, though. If you knew what … .” She looked away to a corner of the tent.

“Shall I tell you what I think?” asked Hodesh.

Both Paltith and Jemima turned their gazes upon her. The baby sucked less and less noisily and then gave a little snore. Paltith moved him higher up her chest, her chin resting against his tiny head, as he started to doze.

“I think,” Hodesh said, “that God holds nothing against your children.”

“But we …”

“The circumstances of your conceptions are known, Paltith. They are of no consequence in your babies’ relationship with God.”

“No?” said Paltith.

“No?” Jemima echoed as she leaned over the younger sister sleeping with the baby in her arms. She adjusted the child and pulled a blanket up over them, then once again sat beside Paltith.

“We’ve heard of your last night in Sodom.” Hodesh looked into Paltith’s eyes and saw tears welling up. “I don’t need to recount those stories we’ve heard.”

“But I keep wondering what our father’s Aunt Sarah would say, or his Uncle Abraham.”

“If they took one look at these baby boys, I’m sure all they would say is ‘Well, well, what beautiful babies.’”

“Do you think that likely?”

“I’ve seen enough older relatives turn into blabbering puddles of giddiness when given the opportunity to hold a healthy newborn. Why should yours be any different?”

“It is doubtful they will ever have the chance. I think my father unlikely to try to resume relationship with Abraham and Sarah.”

“That’s as may be,” Hodesh said. “Still, your duty now is to your son, as your sister’s is to hers. I would not be surprised if God has plans for them. Now, have you thought of names?”

Paltith looked down at her sleeping child. “We have. My son is to be called Moab, and my nephew is Ben-Ammi.”

“The child from your father and the son of your father’s people!” Jemima blurted. “You mean to reveal to all that … ?

“They mean to honor their father even so, as good daughters should.”

Paltith gave a grateful smile to Hodesh even as she began to nod off herself.

“Now let us leave these mothers to rest. They will need our help later when their little ones awaken from their slumbers.”

Jemima walked out of the tent after Hodesh. As they stood outside, she said, “You are a good and wise woman.”

“Or perhaps just experienced. As you will be one day, Jemima. As you will be.”

And they sat at the tent flap listening to the heavy, deep breathing of the two young mothers and the gentle baby snores from their newborn sons.

***

While this story is born of imagination, these two sisters and their sons are real people found in Genesis 19. For background on the notion that the daughters are not to be blamed in these pregnancies, see Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for Their Incestuous Union.

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I Figured This Might Happen

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Bathsheba – conversations the morning after David’s summons to the palace

“You are not eating,” my husband said. “You are upset?”

“Yes, but let’s not speak of it right now. I don’t want to spoil your appetite.” We sat at our table, the evening meal in front of us. I had not yet placed anything on my plate while he had devoured the bread and pigeon I’d prepared for him. I tore off more bread and handed it to him. “Eat, please.”

“I have eaten sufficiently. Tell me.” He laid the bread on his plate. “Please.”

“You know Bathsheba, married to Uriah?”

“She is one of your customers, isn’t she?”

“I’ve repaired clothing and linens for her.” My small seamstress business kept me occupied a few hours each day. “She’s rather pretty, you know.”

“The only pretty woman I know is you,” he said.

“Hmm.” I let my husband’s comment go. “Something happened with her.”

“Something bad?”

“I fear so. I’m not sure. Maybe?”

“Now I am feeling upset,” he said. “I like Uriah, and his wife has always greeted us kindly when we’ve passed in the street. Tell me what happened.”

“As I said, she is an attractive woman and whether you admit noticing or not, someone else has.”

“I hope someone hasn’t been bothering her. Uriah is off to war fighting with the king’s forces.”

My plate sat empty and clean in front of me; I felt dirty with what I was about to say. “It is King David himself.”

He used the last morsel of bread to wipe his plate and tossed it into his mouth. Swallowing quickly he asked, “What is King David himself?”

“He’s the one who finds Bathsheba attractive.”

My husband pushed his chair back from the table and moved it around to sit beside me. “Start from the beginning. I’m not following you at all.”

“I went to her house yesterday morning to return a garment I’d repaired for her, a robe of Uriah’s that she wanted to surprise him with when he returns from war. She told me she had more but they weren’t at hand. She was on her way to bathe, so she asked me to return later in the day.”

“Bathing was so important she couldn’t wait and give you the garments while you were already there?”

“It was her ritual bath. You know for cleaning from her monthly …”

“I know, I know,” he interrupted me. “No need to be explicit.”

“And you don’t need to be so squeamish.”

“Don’t change the subject.” He mustered a cough and cleared his throat; I love his ways, especially when he attempts to cover these embarrassments. “You were telling me about Bathsheba’s day.”

“Yes. I returned in the late afternoon. She had not returned, so I went to the baths to see if she was still there. Sarah, the keeper of the bath, told me she’d been summoned to the palace.”

“Summoned? By whom?”

“Sarah overheard the palace messengers say it was King David’s command.”

“Does she even know the king?”

“I think not. Uriah has served him for years on the battlefield, but Bathsheba has never mentioned being invited to the palace before.”

“So she was summoned to the king. That must be a great honor. Perhaps the king wanted to talk of Uriah. After all, he is on the rolls of the King David’s mighty men.”

“She was summoned yesterday,” I said. “And I don’t think the king spoke of Uriah. Bathsheba did not return until today.”

“Today? She was in the palace overnight?”

“I went to her home early this morning to collect the mending and saw her walking down the street that leads to the palace. She was alone.”

“What did she say?”

“Nothing. She had her shawl pulled tightly down over her head and didn’t see me until she almost collided with me at her threshold.”

“Did she tell you why the king summoned her?”

“I didn’t ask. She was shaking, and I think not from the morning chill. I took her inside her house and prepared some food and heated some water to mix with a small goblet of wine to steady her. She drank some, but ate nothing.” I looked up from staring at my hands twisting on my lap. “She remained silent almost the whole time I was with her.”

“So she gave no indication of what kept her at the palace all night?”

“Oh, my husband. Sometimes you are still as naïve as that boy I married two and a half decades ago.”

“I am?”

“Think of it. Bathsheba is beautiful, the king knows her husband is away, and he summons her to his palace for the night. What do you think he had in mind?”

“That can’t be. Uriah is one of the king’s men! There must be another reason than what you imply.”

“I hope so, but I fear the worst based on the one thing Bathsheba said to me.”

“What?” He took my hands from my lap, holding them to stop me wringing them raw.

“As she walked to the palace with the king’s messengers yesterday, she couldn’t imagine what she had done to merit an invitation to meet with King David. She told me she thought, like you, that it must be about Uriah.”

“But it wasn’t?”

Bathsheba at Bath, Paolo Veronese (ca. 1575)

“One of the messengers, a youngster, blurted out that the king had been on the palace roof and saw her bathing as he looked down into the bath yard across the way from the ledge upon which he stood.”

“No!”

“She said the older man cuffed him and told him to speak only when carrying out orders.”

“Why did she not return home?” he asked.

“Honestly, you men don’t know what we deal with.”

“We don’t?”

“She’s a woman. He’s a man, and the king, and he sent his men to bring her to him. She had no choice in the matter. She did as she was told—as she was commanded—rather than suffer the consequences.” She trembled. “I think whatever happened, Bathsheba was not a willing participant.”

“You think there would be consequences?”

“If not for her, then for Uriah. He is the king’s to command.” I stood to take his plate to the wash basin. “I fear the king’s commands now when it comes to Uriah.”

“But our king is known to be just,” my husband said.

“Our king is also known to desire women for his palace, for his bed. I just hope Bathsheba is not his latest desire.”

“If only the king had gone with his army.” He stood, clenched fists held down at his side. “Why did he stay while the army—while Uriah!—went to fight his wars for him?”

I stood close to him and took his hands in mine, pulling his fingers out of the fists he’d made and laid them in my hands. “There are more questions than answers, my love.”

“But we must do something. Uriah and Bathsheba are our neighbors.”

“Yes, we must. Let us pray God’s protection on Bathsheba and for someone to intervene and show the king his error before it’s too late.”

“Good idea,” he said. “And I know just who I will pray for God to guide to the king.”

“You do?”

“Nathan, the prophet. I will pray that God will stir his heart and give him the words he needs to confront the king.”

***

[This dialog is merely an imagined event. See 2 Samuel 11:1-12:31 for the full story of what actually happened.]

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Why I Do Not Carry A Concealed Weapon

[Updated from the archives, this post originally ran in December 2012.]

***

[This post is not about defense of others, but merely my explanation of why I personally do not carry a firearm to protect myself despite the fact that I have access to top training and have a job where there are reasons at times to fear for my safety. When I first became a judge, the Sheriff’s Sergeant in charge of courthouse security offered to qualify me on the shooting range for a concealed weapon permit and to help me pick out the right weapon to buy as well. He said the same went for my wife. We’ve never taken him up on the offer in the 20+ years I’ve been on the bench.]

***

Only Kill the Bad Man?

I watched Witness the other day, the old Harrison Ford movie about the Amish boy Samuel who witnesses a brutal murder and is then himself in danger from those who carried it out. Ford is the cop who moves in with the Amish family to protect Samuel, and by living with them brings new ideas – the ways of outsiders like him – to the family. At one point Samuel finds Ford’s handgun in a drawer, and his grandfather Eli Lapp talks to him about the discovery:

Eli Lapp: This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?

Samuel Lapp: I would only kill the bad man.

Eli Lapp: Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?

Samuel Lapp: I can see what they do. I have seen it.

Eli Lapp: And having seen, you become one of them? Don’t you understand? What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.

Grandfather Lapp’s words make me wonder: If I faced a threat to my life, would killing the other person be a proper response? How can I be assured that it is better for me to live and for the other person to die?

You are able to look into their hearts?

When I was a kid there was a local radio station that would air shows from the 1930s and ‘40s during the summer nights, including The Shadow. The title character was a crime fighter with the ability to cloud people’s minds so they could not see him. The opening announcement always included the line “Who know what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

That would be the answer to Grandfather Lapp’s question, right? Just become as good at reading people as that Shadow guy and – presto – you can see into someone’s heart. But the Bible says seeing into the heart is God’s job:

A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart. (Proverbs 21:2.)

I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind. (Jeremiah 17:10.)

So the right answer to Grandfather Lapp is that we do not know what is in someone’s heart, what their intentions and thoughts are. Samuel Lapp knew that too. That’s why he said he would rely on what he saw people do in order to choose whether to kill. Grandfather Lapp questioned that too.

Into your hands, into your heart

“Having seen, you become one of them,” the grandfather says. There is some truth to this since the Bible tells us, “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33.) But it has to be more than just seeing it, right? Just seeing someone sin does not necessarily mean that you’ll become just like them does it? Frankly, I think this question puts it backwards. The real issue is whether you are an unredeemed and unregenerate sinner, not whether they are. Paul warns people who live like this:

They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:18-19.)

God, Paul says, allows such people to continue pursuing what is in their hearts and taking into their hands whatever they like. Not so with those who belong to him, though. He heals – sanctifies – those who belong to him.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23.)

God chose you as first-fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13.)

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16-17.)

God has given us himself, and that is what is in our hearts.

We are in God’s hands

Jesus gave his followers (including us) a powerful promise:

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:28-30.)

God “is greater than all”. That means he is certainly more powerful than “the bad man” Samuel Lapp spoke of. But Jesus’ promise is not that we’ll live forever as we do presently, avoiding death and decay. He spoke of our eternal destiny. And in this eternal sense, I don’t know what God has planned for anyone else. I don’t even know God’s temporal plan for “the bad man”.

So what would I do if my life were threatened? What I’d do if ever put to that test is just speculation. Maybe I would try to defend myself and end up killing the other person after all. I can’t say, though, that the Bible teaches me to do so. And I don’t know that I am the one to take matters into my own hands even if confronted with a threat to my life.

It’s like I said above, God gave me himself and took me for his own. I think it’s best to let him take matters into his own hands.

***

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On Not Missing My Father: a free e-book on the relief of a parent’s death

My father died after a lengthy period where I was the one responsible for his well-being. The short e-book ON NOT MISSING MY FATHER: The Relief of a Parent’s Death goes into our relationship–which was good–and the utter relief and release I experienced the night I got the phone call from his assisted living facility that he was dead.

Relationships play a large role in the article: my father and me, my wife and me, my father and my wife. Stress and anxiety are in this story as well, including the care I put myself under with my doctor and the prescriptions he wrote to keep me able to cope with caring for my father.

Click below to download your free copy of this e-book.

ON NOT MISSING MY FATHER: The Relief of a Parent’s Death

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Joseph’s Pregnant Expectations: an advent tale

[We are in the midst of Advent, the time of expectation, so I offer this post from the archives imagining what that first Advent must have been like for Joseph.]

***

I didn’t get any sleep last night. I haven’t been sleeping well for a while, in fact. My friends say that’s normal for someone about to get married, but it’s not just that. It’s about my Mary.

Don’t get me wrong. She’s the sweetest and wisest woman I’ve ever met. But right now we’re merely betrothed and haven’t had our wedding night yet. That’s why when she came to me a while ago with her news it caught me by surprise. Complete surprise.

“Joseph,” she said, “I have to tell you something.”

“I love when you tell me things, my sweet.”

I meant to make her laugh, but she looked down and drew a deep breath.

“You know I want to be the best wife possible for you.”

“And I to be the best husband I can to you.”

“Please let me say what I have to say, or I might not be able to say it at all.”

I stood in silence as I saw something in her eyes I’d never seen before. Was it doubt? Fear?

“Joseph, you are the only man I have ever desired to wed. There is no other for me.”

“Yes?” I tried to keep my voice calm but her words frightened me.

“But I … there is no way to say this without hurting you … . Joseph, I am going to have a baby.”

“Of course you are.” I laughed a little at what I thought were mere wedding jitters. “I hope we’ll have many children!”

“It is not a matter of us having a baby, Joseph.” She looked down again, then back up with a strength I’d not seen in her before, as if her spirit had been freshened. “Do you remember I went to see my cousin Elizabeth?”

“What about it?”

“I went to see her because she and I share something.” I was about to say that cousins share many things when she blurted out, “I’m pregnant. Just like her.”

***

I didn’t know what to say to her. I don’t know if I did say anything to her as a matter of fact. Not that afternoon anyway.

The next day I went to her father’s home to speak with her. I waited in my shop until I knew her father would be busy elsewhere and stood at the door asking her mother for a moment of Mary’s time.

“I didn’t know if you would come back,” Mary said.

“Neither did I.” I leaned on an olive tree in the courtyard as she sat on a little stone bench. “You’re sure about … ?”

“Very.” She straightened the skirts of her robe. “When I said I am pregnant just like Elizabeth, I meant it in more ways than one. That’s one of the reasons I’m so sure.”

I was about to tell her of my decision, the one that had kept me up all night, the decision to end our betrothal quietly rather than make a public spectacle of cancelling the marriage contract. I don’t know what kept me from announcing my intentions, but it was something about her calmness. She must have known I had no other course to take yet she still had that same look that came over her the day before.

“Joseph, do you believe those stories about angels visiting Abraham?”

“What?”

“Angels. Do you think they’re real?”

“Of course. They’re in the Torah, so they must be real.”

“I’ve seen one.”

“One what? A Torah scroll?”

“An angel. One visited me. And then I became pregnant.”

“Don’t make up stories, Mary. If you are pregnant, you don’t have to tell me by whom. But don’t make things up. This is too … it’s too … .”

“I know this is hard, Joseph. I couldn’t believe it either.” She reached for me hand and I let her take it. “So I went to see Elizabeth. Her husband Zechariah is a priest, you know.”

“The one who took ill and lost his voice,” I said. Where was she going with this?

“Not ill. This is one of the things I meant when I said I am pregnant like Elizabeth. Joseph, She and Zechariah are going to have a son in their old age by the power of the Spirit of God. But Elizabeth told me that Zechariah refused to believe it so God’s angel told him he would not be able to speak again until his son was born.”

“And now you are saying I too will be struck mute because I don’t believe you?”

“No, my love. I am saying that I too was told that I am having a son by the power of the Spirit of God. But this child will not be born of a human father like Elizabeth’s child but by our Father in heaven.”

“Only a miracle could accomplish that,” I said as I pulled my hand away. How much of this was I expected to take?

“I can only tell you what the angel of God told me, and that now it has come to pass. I am going to have a baby by winter.”

***

There were many more nights with little sleep after that. Yet this morning I rose refreshed, strengthened for the new day.

I too had seen an angel.

One moment I was lying there wide awake and the next thing I knew I was in a dream. With an angel.

“Joseph son of David,” the angel said to me, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

And then I was alone with the first hints of morning light resting on the window ledge beside my bed. I arose and dressed, waiting for the day to dawn fully so I could see Mary.

Her father was amused at my early arrival.

“Have you broken your fast, son? Mary is helping her mother prepare our morning meal. You can join us.”

“No, I … thank you, I mean … but I … .”

“Joseph, what has come over you?” He laughed as he added, “You look as if you are about to jump out of your skin.”

“Perhaps I am. Is it possible I can see Mary now? I know it’s not … .”

“Yes, yes, of course. She is your betrothed, after all.”

“Yes,” I said to his retreating back, “she is.”

Soon Mary came out wiping her hands on an apron.

“Joseph,” she said, bearing that same look of strength and peace, one I now felt must be mirrored in my own face. “Father says you have something to say that can’t wait until we’ve eaten?”

“Mary, I just want to tell you that I am going to be the best father I can to our children.” I took her hand and led her to the stone bench.

“I’m sure you will love your children.” She sat calmly as I knelt between her and the olive tree.

“I am here to promise you that I will love all children you bear, Mary. All of them.”

She smiled down at me. “You look as if you too have had a visitor in the night.”

***

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Advent, Wilderness Times, and God’s Comfort

Isaiah delivered God’s promise of his comforting presence, and now in Advent we anticipate celebrating the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus’ birth. May the Spirit who dwells within you lift you up whether this is a wilderness time or a mountaintop moment in your life.

Here are the words of Isaiah from chapter 40, verses 3-6:

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Suicide, Shame, and Deciding to Remain

[Today’s guest post by Charlyn Wright speaks of despair and redemption, suicide and family, movies and life.]

The first movie that I remember seeing that broke my heart wide open was “The Shawshank Redemption.” Based on a Stephen King novel, it tells the tell of Andy Dufresne, who was given a lengthy prison term for a crime he did not commit. Despite his circumstances, Dufresne continues to hold onto the optimism that the future will be better. He tells a friend, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Sadly, his fellow inmate Brooks does not share that sentiment. Upon being released from prison—and hence the only home he ever really knew—Brooks finds himself scared and alone on the outside. In the most heartbreaking scene of the movie, he says he has “decided not to stay.” He later takes his life.

I remember vividly cringing at the scene of him swaying back and forth from the ceiling of his rooming house, his neck in a noose. Why, I wondered, would anyone ever do such a thing to themselves? That was 1994.

Fast forward to December 24, 2014. It was a bitterly cold day in western Kentucky, It was Christmas Eve, my first ever I would not be spending with my two beautiful kids. All I could muster up the energy to do was to lay on the couch and replay over and over how I had gotten to the place I was in and how it had all gone horribly wrong.

I thought about the 23 year old woman who walked down the aisle to get married to the father of her 6 month old despite knowing that it was the wrong decision. I thought about the woman who naively thought that having another child might fix the marriage and curb her husband’s sex addiction. I thought about how broken that woman had been when the father of her children had asked her to “open” the marriage and how she had turned to alcohol to cope. I thought about how quickly the drinking had gotten out of hand and how the woman had filed for divorce and then decided to go to rehab. How, when she came back home, her husband had moved back into the house while she was gone and said to her frankly, “It’s MY house and if anyone’s going to leave, it will be you.” How that very thing happened a few months later and how gut-wrenching it was to know that leaving meant estrangement from those 2 precious teenagers who were exposed to things that no children should be. As I watched the snow fall outside my window, I felt half unconscious from the shame pouring over me.

That day, I too decided not to stay.

Since I had no car to get around, I decided to walk to a nearby hardware store. The plan was surprisingly simple. After looking at the beamed ceiling in my apartment’s dining room area, I figured all I needed was one of the kitchen table chairs and some good, strong rope. I bundled up and headed off into the blustery day. The hardware store was almost empty when I arrived. I wandered the aisles until coming to the section I was looking for. The rope felt prickly in my hands. I was conscious of the song playing on the store radio but not much else. “Here I am, Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.” I headed up to the checkout area. A young man who looked an awful lot like my son was behind the register. I tried to avert my eyes and act nonchalant.

When I looked up to pay, his eyes met mine. They were full of kindness. “Ma’am, I hope you have a blessed Christmas.”

I hurriedly thanked him and headed out of the store, It was snowing harder. I thought of my kids. I thought of my parents and brothers, I thought of the song playing in the store. I thought of how God might have something better for me, possibly. I thought of Andy Dufresne. I thought of hope. And I decided to stay. I tossed the rope into a nearby dumpster.

Five years later, I think about what I would have missed out on had I followed through with my plan on that dark, cold day. How I would have missed out on meeting and marrying the love of my life, who ironically enough, I met through a mutual friend in AA. How I would have hurt so many people who cared about me. How we can live with our heartache and let it prod us to try to bring light into other’s darkness. How I would have never known that God really can and does revise our next chapters to make meaning out of the painful previous ones.

My prayer every morning when I wake up is that God will use me, a broken but redeemed person, to tell others that I hope they decide to stay too.

***

Charlyn Wright is a writer, wife, mom, music aficionado, teacher, naturalist, and world traveler who’s passions revolve around putting into words stories that reach out to people who seek connection. In her free time she practices mindfulness by kayaking and hiking every chance she gets. You can find her on Facebook.

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The Negative Doctrine of Biblical Manhood

Getting doctrine right is important. Reading the Bible – knowing what it says and what it means when it says it – is a blessing given by God. Which means that when you see the Bible say something you should strive to understand it.

It’s important too not to create doctrines based on things the Bible doesn’t say. This is a trap which a prominent ministry recently fell into.

Creating doctrine out of negative space

A student at the University of California at Santa Barbara visited the Grand Canyon years ago. An art major, she chose to represent her impression by sculpting the Grand Canyon. Rather than display the deep emptiness of the canyon with the walls rising high around it, she sculpted the emptiness as a solid mass by making the canyon’s actual shape into a mold, pouring plaster into the emptiness, and then removing it to show the shape of that emptiness as a free standing body.

Grand Canyon – National Park Foundation

It was a clever way to get people to think about the Grand Canyon, but nobody was fooled into thinking they were seeing the gorge created by the flow of the Colorado River flowing along the base of the canyon. The solidity of the negative space was a representation of an aspect of the canyon, yet it was not what anyone would call the reality of the canyon itself. The solid plaster represented what had been taken out of the canyon in its formation, not the canyon as it truly exists.

John Piper’s recent article at Desiring God, Do Men Owe Women a Special Kind of Care?, is likewise created from negative space. He uses the absence of information in a few passages to create an entire doctrine on how men and women are to relate to one another.

The article starts by decrying what Mr. Piper sees as an inability of some people to understand that men as a sex are spiritually – not just anatomically – different from women as a sex. He believes there are some things the Bible requires of men toward women that it does not require of women toward men. He calls this requirement “peculiar”: men, he insists, have a responsibility that women do not and cannot have if they are each to live out their spiritually sexual natures.

He starts by acknowledging that women and men are to care for each other generally.

While affirming the importance of mutual love, respect, honor, and encouragement between men and women, there is in our day a resistance against the biblical summons for men to show a peculiar care for women that’s different than they would for men — and a strong disincentive to women to feel glad about this.

He then cites a few passages where husbands are told to care for their wives.

But in Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.

Contrary to Mr. Piper’s assertion, the passages from Ephesians 5 (which he failed to start with verse 21’s call for mutual submission) and 1 Peter do not reveal an inherently male temptation to be cruel and an inherently female gladness to be honored with protection. Yet he insists that these passage reveal:

God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. As a complementarian, I do not say that this calling is to the exclusion of women protecting and caring for men in their own way. I am saying that men bear a peculiar burden of responsibility that is laid on them in a way that is not laid on women. (Emphasis in original.)

Those concepts, in fact, are entirely absent from the Bible passages Mr. Piper cites. He looks at this emptiness and tries to make it stand as a solid body (much as the art student created a solid mass from what is missing) and sees a doctrine in what is not there.

That might work as an art student’s project but it doesn’t work as doctrine.

Learning from what is actually there

The passages Mr. Piper cites actually do lead to a discernible doctrine, but it is one found by looking at things that do exist, not matters that are absent. Look at them together:

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19.)

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28.)

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3:7.)

While Mr. Piper’s doctrine posits these passages somehow reveal that men have a responsibility to women that women do not have toward men, a more reasonable reading is that these passages teach that people in positions of authority and power (for example, husbands in ancient households) should not use their position to harm those in weaker positions (like wives in those same households).

Take 1 Peter 3:7, for example. As Margaret Mowczko explains in A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7):

Peter calls wives “weaker vessels” because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives who were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically in the first century.

Cultural context – something that exists for all writings, including the Bible – helps inform the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning in a passage. The place of women in Peter’s day shows them to be disadvantaged compared to men.

The verses from Colossians and Ephesians likewise show a relationship where the husband is told not to use the superior position given by the world, but to love his wife with the same love Jesus has for all his people. These passages recognize the cultural context (something that actually exists) and tell people in power not to abuse that power.

This is a doctrine that applies to men and women alike.

  • If you have power, never use it to harm those who are weaker than you.
  • If you have authority, never use it to harm those who are subordinate to you.
  • If you have a position of responsibility, never use it to harm those who are under that responsibility.

Instead, use the power and authority and responsibility God has given you to love everyone he has put in your life, whether a family member, a co-worker, a classmate, or a stranger on the street.

This is the doctrine you can glean from those passages, and there is nothing negative about it.

***

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