The Fisherman

“Once when he was standing on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, the crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God.” Luke 5:1 (The Message)

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Oh, the stink of fish was more than he could bear!

The tangled nets, in a heap where he had
thrown them, this bilge fouled boat,
the open blisters on his hands from hauling wet line,
the ache in his back and across his shoulders
from the weight of the net,
empty, empty every time,
and he wanted to know what he was doing
and why, why,
                 why did he bother…

What was the use?

Years of this.
Still paying off his father’s interest in the boat.
Trapped in this stinking village, 
enslaved to the whims to this lake,
to the capricious fish,
never where he expected them,
never where they ought to be,
and this sea,
as capricious as the fish with its storms,
the constant threat of unreasonable weather,
it was bound to drown him before it was done,
and he was tired of it,  
and the wine jar (and who could blame him)
nursed all the way in, was nearly empty,
and no more at home, and no catch,
no cash, for more,
and his family, his wife, his sons,
looking at him from an empty table
when he came through the door,  
and not so much as a single minnow
to show for a whole night’s work. 

And he threw the nets out on the sand
and grabbed the sponge and cork to scrub them,
as though he could rub out a lifetime
of this fruitless labor,
this hopeless slavery to the sea,
a life of hunger, of danger, of rage…

And then this madman, this Y’shua,
dragging a great crowd of fanatics behind him,
came marching down the beach…
or scuttling backwards at the water edge at least,
the crowd was that insistent, and,
calm as anything stepped into his boat,
Simon’s boat, and said,
“Stand off from shore a bit
so I can speak to these people.”

And why not? What did it matter?
What did anything matter?
So he’d thrown in the sponge, oh yes!
and taken an oar and floated out, 
and sat there in the new sun and,
despite himself, listened.

“God’s Spirit is on me; 
he’s chosen me to preach the Message
of good news to the poor,
sent me to announce pardon to prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, “This is God’s year to act!””

And something in Simon’s heart opened to the words, 
like a clenched fist first relaxing…

He’d seen this Y’shua before,
when he and Andrew had gone down
to find John and bring him home
from that madness at the Jordan,
that other John, the Baptist,
and Andrew had come and claimed
he had seen the Messiah, this Y’shua,
And it had been all Simon could do
to bring either Andrew or John
back to the boat, the nets, to their duty:

He didn’t get it, he didn’t understand…
what did they see in this wild-eyed rabble rouser? 

But there was something,
something about this Y’shua and his words,
something that touched a part of Simon 
something that had not stirred since Sabbath school,
something he thought drowned
in fish brine and wine long ago.

“Come, all you who are weary
and loaded down by life’s cares
or the duties of your religion, 
and I will give you rest.
Be harnessed with me, pull with me,
and you’ll learn how easy it can be, 
for I am a gentle and humble in heart:
even as we labor you will find your rest.
The yoke I bear is easy and my load is light.
Learn from me and the truth
of God’s love will set you free.”

And then this Y’shua had turned
and looked Simon in a way no one
had ever looked at him before, 
as though he saw something there
that no one had ever seen in Simon,
some Simon even Simon didn’t know.

“Put out into deep water
and let down your nets for a catch.”

And Andrew, of course, was jumping ashore
with a great splash and hauling the wet nets
back aboard before Simon could get a word out…

“But master, we’ve been fishing hard all night
and haven’t caught a thing, not a minnow.
What do you expect?”

And Y’shua had just sat there looking at him, smiling.

“Ahhhh”. It came out of Simon
like someone had hit in the stomach.
Oh, what did it matter?
“But, hay, you are the master,
whatever you say.”

And by now, somehow, Andrew had gotten
them out to the drop off,
beyond where any fisherman worth his salt
would ever go for fish, and they dumped the net.

And it came alive with their hands still on the ropes.
It twisted and turned as fish filled it,
as fish rushed to fill it,
and he could see them coming from all directions,
their silver backs flashing
just beneath the surface in the sun.

“Haul in!”
he shouted as the net threatened
to get away from them with the unexpected weight,
and they hauled, hand over hand,
and it was too heavy,
too full of flashing impossible fish,
and he called to the other boat,
to John and James, and they came,
and between them they got the catch aboard,
more than both boats could safely hold,
and Simon fell to his knees
right there in the bilge and the fish,
and cried out:

“Master leave me!
I am a sinner and this bounty will kill me.
Leave me alone.”

But they got the catch in, all of them,
Andrew, and John, and James,
totally amazed,
stunned at the impossible magnitude of it,
the amazing abundance,
three days catch at least,
laying there on the beach in the morning sun.

And Y’shua said,
“Don’t worry.
From now on you will be fishing for souls.”

And before he knew it,
he was helping the others
pull the boats up on the beach,
and they turned, John and James,
and Andrew, and followed this Y’shua,
leaving the mound of miraculous fish
right where it had fallen, and,

after a moment, with a shrug,
and something like hope in his heart again,
so did Simon.

How could he help himself?
He was a fisherman,
and this Y’shua had spoken to him in fish.

Canna Wedding

Three days later there was a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there. Jesus and his disciples were guests also. When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus’ mother told him, “They’re just about out of wine.” (John 2:1-3 The Message)

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It was in Cana in Galilee,
in a fish smelling village by the sea,
that Y’shua first stood to the test,
taking the stubborn stuff of earth
and altering it, by asking…

Because his mother asked it of him,
he came out from the crowded dark of the wedding house,
from the wine-strong song and laughter of the guests,
to stand beneath the pole shed’s roof of woven branches
in the courtyard and consider.

(His first and best friend, John,
and a new met stranger, Judas,
followed, but stopped short,
Judas’s hand on John’s arm staying,
unseen in the shadow of the doorway.)

Y’shua stood silently contemplating
the rack of ewers that held the household water
(now half empty with the ritual
washing of so many wedding guests).

Servants came and went about him.
He bobbed like a cork in a restless sea
shifting to the insistent rhythm of their errands.

Suddenly he snagged one by the sleeve.

“Here,” he said, “get a bucket and fill these jars…”

The servant stared, then seeing something in those eyes
he went, got help, and did it.

In the plaited shadows of the summer kitchen,
Y’shua stood and hummed,
like a new-made bow at first and full draw,
untried, taut with promise, vibrant with purpose.

Snatches of a psalm quivered beneath his breath
and he beat time to it with a hand upon his thigh
as he studied with inner eye the deed he was about to do.

“Will there be anything else, master?”
a pointed question put to a guest
who had already exceeded his privilege.

Y’shua smiled self-consciously
and appeared to address the pale patch
of sky framed in courtyard walls.

He spoke a single word,
placing all his questions in it…
“Father?”

His eyes fell quickly.
He drew a breath from the ground beneath
his feet and slowly let it sigh between his lips.

The impatient servant shifted from foot to foot
between Y’shua and the jars.
“Master?”

Y’shua pushed the dust up in a little heap
with sandaled toes and looked up shyly.

A boyish grin blossomed on his lips.
“Draw some off and take it to the steward of the feast.”

The servant opened his mouth in instant protest,
thought better of it, shrugged,
and turned to do as he was asked.

Now, for Y’shua, time itself slowed.
An eternity passed in the slow turning of the servant,
in the rise of the ladle from its leather thong,
in its fall.

The sound as it parted the surface of the liquid
took eons to reach Y’shua’s ears.

The ladle rose from the liquid
like the dawn swelling on
the far horizon of the sea.

“Master…”
stammered the servant with quavering wonder,
“the water is red…”

But Y’shua knew already.
He had come up to see the sun rise
over the servant’s shoulder.

When the servant turned,
still clutching the brimming ladle,
it was to see a man transformed.

Y’shua stood, the psalm now a raging fire within him,
a living offering of praise, his soul full-flowered,
eyes closed, lips parted, translated to a pillar
of ecstasy there in the courtyard by the ewers.

(Behind him in the doorway,
Judas’s hand tightened on John’s arm
with a sharp in-drawn breath,
and John sank slowly to his knees,
eyes huge with wonder.)

The frightened servant, caught between
the transformed water and the transformed man,
fled on flying feet to find the steward.
The ladle held before him like a live coal
shed drops that splashed the paving
of the yard with blood and fire.

As soon as he was gone,
Y’shua let loose the yet soundless spring
within him in a sudden shout,
laughed aloud at himself, and began to sing…
lending rhythm to the slow spinning dance
he did, arms raised, before the Lord.

(In the doorway John dropped his eyes and began to pray.
Judas simply stared.)

Both were shouldered aside by the groom as he came,
brim full of the hilarity of his own feast,
belatedly to see about the wine.

Y’shua drew himself up in the deeper shadow
of the roof as the groom, the errand having slipped
his wine and wedding-night anticipation muddled mind,
wandered aimlessly over to the rack of ewers
and stood staring up at the sky.

Now, like a merchantman under full sail,
the steward of the feast, all business and bustle,
came beaming down upon the groom from another door,
drawing the still incredulous and shaking servant in his wake.

“My good man,” said the steward in portentous tones,
“most serve the sound wine first and after
their guests have drunk slip in the bad…
You sir, have saved the best for last.”

And he turned to supervise the drawing.

(Judas and John exchanged a meaning
look while Y’shua smiled in the shade.)

The groom, no wiser, wandered back to the wedding house
and closer to the object of his anticipation.
The steward set his sails and hurried off,
driving the servants before him.

There was a moment of absolute silence
before Y’shua left the shadow and approached the jars.

He leaned in on tiptoe,
peering into the ruby surface of first one then another,
chuckling softly to himself.

Looking slyly to one side then the other,
he dipped his finger into the center jar
and lifted it slowly to his mouth.

(John and Judas in the doorway heard the tongue cluck
of satisfaction and Y’shua’s long sigh
before he turned to face them.)

The boyish grin was now a full-fruited smile.

Judas stepped boldly forward.
“Surely, Master, you did not doubt?”

Y’shua closed his eyes,
pressed the smile until it spread across his face,
and shook his head.

He laid his arm across John’s shoulders,
gave him a quick wink and turned to Judas.
“Tell me friend, is it doubt, then, to want
to taste the miracle for yourself?”

And he went on in, drawing John with him,
back to the song and laughter of the wedding house.

John would not forget.

Neither would Judas.

 

Desert

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. (Matthew 4: 1-2 The Message)

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A dawn stroll,
a turning from the unaccustomed pressure,
the expectation, the speculation,
that spoke now in every eye,
a short walk to clear the mind,
just over the hill crest in the morning,
tasting of dew and the night sap
and breath of spined and armored plants—
the blooms too tender for the sun.

Noon found him miles beyond his intent,
spirit driven, intent on the way
the rocks melted in the light,
the way the shadows took
dimension until the world popped,
unpredictably,
between black on white and white on black,
the way every whisper of wind turned prophet,
speaking mysteries, drawing him on…

And that night,
the star-burned cinder-cold air came down,
pinned him, crucified him,
face pressed to the naked rock,
as the heat, day caught, leaked,
leached, through him and away.

By morning he was cold,
cleaner than he had ever been,
and thirsty.

He wrung the dew,
self-flavored,
from his robe and walked.

By the fourth dawn the sweat stopped beading,
became a silk breath in every pore,
balancing him, with the dew,
just at the brink of fever.

Day by day, step by step,
he watched his shadow grow thinner.

Waking and sleeping lost meaning,
changed places in his mind with
walk and rest so quietly he hardly noticed.

Sometimes the stars spoke above him,
the high and clear and distant chant
of his own heartbeat, sometimes they
came right down to the next hill crest
so that he walked into a wave of night sky,
parting it, fish like, among
the sparks and bubbles of light.

Sometimes the day reared up like
a curtain in front of him and,
like a man trapped inside a silk sack,
he forced his face through it until the flesh
pulled back to show the bone within.

Sometimes he woke to the dream of water
to find himself soaked in dew.
And, day by day,
the sun burned his shadow away.

There were days, there in the middle,
when everything went away but the walking,
when the whole of him, all that the sun left,
went into each step, and nothing left over,
when the universe contracted to a black spot,
a tunnel down which he half fell,
putting one foot in front of the other,
toward the dark at the end.

And then came the dawn he bit down
on the utter cinder of himself,
ground it to ash between his teeth,
sipped the dew from the ragged edge
of his sleeve, and spit himself out.

Did it thunder? Were there doves?

There were doves,
and a tiny seep from under a rock ledge,
a damp patch in the sand,
a bush with blooms of fire,
and the world came back with crashing cymbals,
with bells, with a finger of breeze
that turned the collar of his robe
until he shivered, and knew he was alive.

And now he walked knowing, seeking,
drinking in each moment,
looking behind each rock, eager,
over each hill, under every bush,
walking now toward himself and not away.

 

The Jordan

Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected. “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!” (Matthew 3:13-14 The Message)

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First the smell,
riding above dust and baked bush in the dry air,
running in and out of the teasing river scent…
spent breath and man sweat,
a crowd beyond the crest.

Y’shua bent to tighten a sandal,
making a spot of his own shade on the hill top,
and looked down under his lifted hand.

There, where the river lapped the foot of the broken hills,
where the rock ran out and pushed the current round,
the eddy embraced a man to the waist.

He stood in the eye of the valley,
the focus (for now),
sun bright robes rose up around him,
circling slowly on the red rocks,
the flowing crescents and curves
of the shifting mutter of crowd.

The hot air shimmered, simmered over all,
boiling gently where the water vapor
lifted the desert lid all down the river course.

Y’shua’s heart answered,
lifting with an artesian air of its own,
a springing-water reply to the river,
to the man, eddy caught,
where time itself circled and waited.

(Thunderheads built in the west.)

Y’shua stood slowly and stepped downhill
toward the lightning and the storm…
the rain / reign kingdom come
flash of future that spoke already,
in the crowd, in eddy-eye of time
in the valley below, and in John…

For most of the morning he watched and listened,
crowd lost, beneath an overhanging rock,
the hood of his robe up against the glare,
the eyes and ears of his spirit sifted the scene,
sought the sense and substance of John,
the words and works…
as the river took them, one by one,
and they came back dripping, laughing,
lapped in light, soul-washed, solemn,
bemused, awestruck, angry, resolute,
these sons and daughters, seekers all,
hearing the call to come, to come clean,
clean! to the coming kingdom,
grasping, gasping in the water bought holiness…
that cost them nothing…
nothing after all.

How quickly they dried in the desert air.
You could almost hear the pop
as the ground sucked in each drop
that fell from robe and beard and hair,
as though the thirst of the whole world
was gathered there, in the valley,
for the sparse rain of the prophet’s words.

And John knew…

How many times that morning did his eyes lift
scanning the crowd, his own thirst
larger than the river he stood in,
as they came one by one,
to the water that wasn’t enough,
was never enough, could not be enough,
searching for the one face on which the eddy broke,
listening, with the inner ear alone,
to the thunder of the coming storm
where hidden fire split his mind’s sky.

Noon came.

Even the river breeze was beaten flat
by the towering sun and the flow of penitents
faltered as the people sought shade and lunch.

John himself climbed the bank and sheltered while his disciples ate.

Suddenly the cry came…
“Behold, the lamb of God,
who takes away the sins of the world.”

The disciples started and stared, bread half-chewed.

John stood, a crossroads post,
his eyes pointing along his leveled arm
to the slope across the river,
his breath ragged, all a-tremble in a mighty
wind that none but he could feel.

“Where?”
             “Who?”
“What?”

They strained after John’s eyes
and turned back, one to another,
defeated by the crowd across the way…
they could, none of them, it seemed,
see that far.

John himself faltered,
wiped his hand across his eyes,
half stumbled, (thunder rumbled beyond the crest)
“The heat” he said, “the fire and the rain…
I thought it flashed so, there…”

And then, from the river fringe of the crowd,
Y’shua stepped into the water,
waded out to midstream, and stood.

John swung back, head low,
slapped hand to leg, “No,” he cried,
“not you to me but I to you…

He fell to his knees, and then, as one drawn,
crawled across the rock and rubble to the water’s edge,
and in, crawled still, until the water
lapped his chin in Y’shua’s shadow.

Y’shua reached and drew him up.

“It must be done!”

John shook his head, backed a step,
swayed in the current, “No…”
(Thunder from beyond the hill.)
John stiffened,
sought the lightning in the gathered clouds,
and then, at last, took Y’shua’s hand and held
while he bowed beneath the water,
long, breath bursting long,
so long the disciples shifted foot to foot
on the shore and pulled at each other’s robes.

Y’shua rose dripping and lightning ripped the fabric of the world,
striking down to where he stood in the water,
throwing the crowd flat against their shadows all along the shore.

In the terrible silence of the evacuated air a whisper hung…

“My Son!”

…and then the thunder, ear splitting,
mind numbing, and suddenly
              the air was filled with doves.

Y’shua threw his head back, mouth open,
as the rain struck, lashing the river,
beating it to foam, drenching the crowd
where they cowered, most of them,
on the shore.

Who was it who first threw off his robe
and danced with the rain as it fell,
slipping, beating the red clay
of the shore until it ran like blood?

Who was it who dove laughing from rain to river?
Who first flung water up to answer the fall
until the eddy ran red with the washed,
bore, and was borne under,
the splashing, laughing bodies,
baptized and baptizers,
celebrating there at the very edge of the storm?

Time and the rain passed.
They stumbled, still smiling, from the river,
seeking discarded robes
among their more timid fellows,
but when they turned at last to look for Y’shua
where the lightning struck…he was already gone

running ahead with the winds of the storm.

 

Carpenter

 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like the desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” (Matthew 3:1-3 The Message)

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Y’shua sat at the bench in the shop,
his feet among the shavings;
the half-planed board balanced on his knees,
his eyes focused inward,
a small smile upon his lips.

His hands were still,
his whole body was still,
balanced like the board,
between the pleasure of the wood beneath his fingers,
the smell, the sight, of sun on sawdust and shavings,
and the sudden swell of love that caught him,
lifted him just slightly above common sight
and let loose the tongues of fire that lived
at the heart of every
(even most little)
thing he saw.

Seconds passed and his hand moved,
following a thought of its own,
to the plane where he had left it on the bench.
His focus shifted outward and with undiminished
reverence he began, once more, to work the wood.

There was a sudden bustle, a buzz and rattle,
in the shop-yard as James,
twenty-seven and still reluctant master of the shop,
returned, trailing younger sons and apprentices,
from delivering a ship’s mast to Capernaum by the sea.

Y’shua rose and stood in the open doorway
to the yard, leaning now on the board he planed.

In Joseph’s yard
(even after a year it was still Joseph’s yard,
might always be,
as alive with the spirit of the old carpenter
as it was cluttered with his tools)
James embraced his mother, attempting,
good-humoredly,
to brush off the inevitable questions:

How was Esther…
Had Naomi had her baby…
Did Jonathan get the field…
the minutiae of a housebound woman’s
far reaching familial concern
as he did the dust of the journey
with a flick of the wrist here,
a word and a nod there,
clipped by honest impatience to see
what the yard had been up to
while he was gone.

Y’shua smiled over his board
in the doorway to see them so,
so engaged in the ordinary,
so filled with the small wills
of God’s own creatures being themselves…
so busy with life and the living,
and he loved them.

James turned and saw him standing there.

As always, there were shadows of unquiet thought
in his brother’s eyes as he approached and embraced Y’shua.

“Well, first-born, how does it go?”

Y’shua tucked his chin and humphed
through his nose at the now familiar gibe.

“They are all asking, over there where every other thought
(and every smell) is of fish or net or wave,
where is Y’shua?
How is it that he has not taken the shop?
Is he well?

And what do I tell them, older brother…?
He is waiting for a sign from God…?
Joseph, you know, was not his father…?
There is no need for him to think of the business…?
His mother Mary and his brothers are no concern of his…?
That one, who at five planed a board so straight
his father used it as a marking edge, was,
apparently, not cut out to be a carpenter…?
That one, who sees the shape within the wood
while it is yet a tree, is waiting for another calling…?

What do I tell them Y’shua?”

Y’shua, silent, studied his hands where they rested on the board.

James walked to the far side of the door
where a new-made wagon bed rested
by a pile of wheels and well planed boards.

“At least you do not leave all the work to me,
run off to Judea seeking a messiah
like our worthless cousin John,
while his father and brothers break their backs
hauling the nets and breathe fish stink
all the days of their lives.”

Y’shua’s head snapped up,
“What is this of John?”

“Oh, the fool had just come back from the Jordan.
Some madman is shouting at everyone
and dipping them in river water to clean them
for the coming of the Kingdom,
or some such nonsense…
and John is so full of it he’s leading every
idle son on the shore of the sea
back with him to see this new messiah
and get their bath.

I told him the Jordan is too muddy to
do much cleansing, and if it did,
the pollution from just he and his friends
will kill all the fish from there to the sea.”

If James had looked he would
have seen the blaze in Y’shua’s eyes.

“Did he name this prophet?”

James sobered. “That’s the strange part…
it seems he is another of our cousins…
another John…
they are calling him the “Baptist,”
ritual washer, as though souls
could be washed like cups or pots.”

Mary, who had edged close
to see if any crumbs of family news
might be falling as her sons talked,
broke in

“Not Elizabeth’s son…?
Not the son of the prophecy…?”

Both James and Y’shua turned to her,
though her eyes were only for Y’shua.

James continued, snorting and huffing,
“Son of prophecy? If you ask me…”
and he too turned to Y’shua,
“there are all too many sons of prophecy in this clan.
No good will come of it.”
and he stomped off to take out
his frustrations bullying the apprentices.

Y’shua watched him go and then turned to face his mother.

He smiled and gently brushed
the tear from the corner of her eye.

“Yes,” he said, “It is time.
I go.”

Rabbi Benyoseph 2

 “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:41-44 NIV)

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Rabbi Benyoseph came back to himself,
sitting on the edge of his bed-shelf
with his outer robe bunched in his hands,
though he had fully intended,
he thought, to put it on.

He shook his head side to side to clear it,
lifted his eyes to the low ceiling,
blinked, and sighed from the root of him.

“So old. How did I get to be so old?”

His arms like withered mustard stalks;
his hands like neglected leather;
his feet like a chicken’s,
cold skin stretched over hollow bone;
legs about as trustworthy as a one legged-stool.

His mind, caught in the snares of the particular,
ran backwards, it seemed, these days,
so that this thing with Y’shua grew tendrils
that borrowed back
insatiable through the soil of his past,
back to his earliest days,
back beyond his first call from God,
back to himself as a boy,
running through every decision he had ever made,
good or bad, right or wrong, until it wound him
up so tightly in memory he could not move,
could hardly breathe,
much less speak.

He’d been sitting there for what looked,
by the carbon on the lamp,
like more than an hour, lost in his past,
and he was no closer to knowing what to say to the man.

“Say something,” the elders said,
“It is your place. Someone has to speak to him.
He can’t go on like this.

“It’s disruptive. It’s disrespectful.
Surely he offends the Most High.
Surely God can not approve.”

“Speak to him Benyoseph,
you have been teacher here among us
his whole life, surely he will listen to you,
if anyone.”

Cowards. Every one of them.
Putting off on an old man
what none of them would dare to do.

And what, after all, was the man’s offense?
Too much time studying the scriptures?
Too ready a tongue telling over
the wonders of God’s work with his people?

“Too literal a mind,” they said,
“He takes it all too seriously,
as though God really meant
what he said when he called us his children,
when he called us to holiness.
As though the sacrifices are not enough,
as though our trips, twice a year,
three times even, to the temple,
all that good grain, the spotless
doves and the lambs without blemish,
mean nothing; as though God really wants
our blood, our lives, our days, our hearts;
as though he would want to come out of the ark,
out of his splendid tent of stone and cedar on his hill,
out from behind the tablets of the law,
and dwell again among us…

I ask you…in this day and age?”

“Who does he think he is?”

Benyoseph bent clumsily to fish a sandal out
from under the hem of his second
best robe where it hung on the wall.

“You know how he sits in the doorway
of the synagogue with that stack of the old rolls
of the law and prophets every evening.
You’ve seen the crowd that gathers there
to hear him read and turn the scripture
into stories as he does,
tickling the ears of every passing sinner…
and the way the idle women gather
at the back edge lapping it up,
hanging on his every word…
why every unlettered shepherd’s boy
for leagues around thinks he’s going to
become a scholar,
spouting scripture with the best of them.

Even Simon the leper is there most evenings,
in his rags,
listening until the light fails and Y’shua goes home.

Do you know he carried a scroll right out
to the well last night and read it by moonlight
to the caravanners who crawled
in from their camp at the edge of the town.

He has no sense of what is proper.
No sense of what is holy.
You must forbid him, Benyoseph.
Take those scrolls back and put
them in the chest where they belong.
Tell him he’s no son of Aaron to have
his hands always upon them,
to have the word of God always in his mouth,
to make it his own the way he does.”

Benyoseph shook his head to free it
of the buzz of complaint in his inner ear.
He did not dare to bring up David with them,
though Y’shua could claim, through Joseph,
to be David’s son, son of that scripture spouting,
law loving, shepherd king.

Ha! And he called them cowards.

Benyoseph struggled at last into his robe,
sandaled his feet and struggled
across the street to the synagogue,
to fall on his knees before the altar of the Lord.

“Y’shua,” I will say, firmly but gently,
“come on the Sabbath,
take your turn with the rest of the men,
reading the word of your God,
get yourself a wife, get children,
mind your father’s shop in his age,
support your mother…

But don’t let the prophet’s mantle settle on you.
This is the wrong time, the wrong place.”

And hearing himself say it,
even in his own mind, his spirit cried out…
“When, oh Lord, and where?
Will I live to see the day of your deliverance?”

Like many,
he would never know just how close he came.

 

Dawn

What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness could not put it out. (John 1:4-5 The Message)

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As often as he could,
Y’shua stole away with a piece of bread,
a lump of cheese, a salted fish in his pocket,
a flask of water, or new wine in season,
to walk the hills above the village.

The shepherds saw him,
for he took the sheep trails at first,
tracing the familiar paths of his boyhood,
but he soon outdistanced the widest ranging flocks,
pushing right out into the edges of the back beyond
where no one but an occasional hunter went,
(or a boy seeking the fate of a lost lamb)
where eagles nested, where once, even in David’s time,
lions laired, where snakes warmed themselves
in the sun on rock ledges in the morning cool,
and scorpions infested dark cracks in the heat of noon—
where the wind out of the wilderness came untamed,
untainted by the habits and habitations of man
and spoke in simple words of one syllable to his heart.

In the morning he would sit bareheaded and
bold as any snake on a ridge line and drink the sun.
At noon he would find a narrow canyon,
a cut in the stone of the hills,
and a tree whose roots reached down
to drink the stream that ran beneath the sand
and he would sit like one of the prophets of old
waiting for the voice of God.

Did he hear it in the ant that climbed his feet?
In the domestic twitter of the birds
that nested in the branches overhead?
In the way the wind scoured and shaped the living rock,
whispering mysteries too deep for human tongue?

He would dig down under the sand
until he felt the water under his hands,
bless his lips with the vital moisture,
kiss a stone, and the overwhelming
love of the creator of all would wash through him,
would reach out in his own hand to touch the weathered
and wise trunk of the tree behind him,
to trace the edge of a leaf,
to explore the tender edges of his
soul where it unfolded within him,
to test his mind, to temper his heart…

There were tears, the salt of his humanity
to mingle with the hidden waters of the stream.

There was joy to ride the eagle’s cry,
to split the sky
and draw the voices out of stone.

He felt himself turned inside out,
the naked nerves exposed in a harsh world,
defenseless in the loving hand of his Father God,
where every breath shivered him to his core,
and he was glad.

Coming home at sundown he
would pause on the last ridge above
the town and look down to all
he had known and loved.

He would sit, sometimes, for hours more
as the sky faded and the dark rose up
out of the ground, as the stars gathered themselves,
one by one, in the sky, and, in the full dark,
he would pour himself down the slope,
a smoke of love to find and wind itself
around every heart below so that
they sang to answer the stars above…
until he himself was utterly empty.

He would have had to step right outside himself to see how,
in the spirit, he blazed there on the ridge,
brighter than any star, bright as only the sun itself,
turning spiritual night into day around him,
pushing the dawn ahead with every step he took,
with every breath he drew,
whether the world was ready for it or not.

Who knows…if he could have seen
the forces of the night arrayed against him,
willing his death, willing his failure,
would he have had the courage
to go on breathing, being,
walking into his own future?

Or would he too have known,
would he have been given the grace to know,
even then, that there was no power in heaven,
or on earth, that could hold back this dawn.

 

Melons

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18 NIV)

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Y’shua paused on the stairs,
just where his head would have crested the roof line
to come in view of his parents in the summer
kitchen on the roof of the house.

Suddenly he was a boy again,
peeking over the stair top,
eavesdropping on his parents,
fascinated by this mystery that was adulthood.

Joseph sat straddle on a bench,
hair and beard still dripping from his
ritual washing before the evening meal.

Mary shaped the flat bread and tended
it on a stone at the edge of the fire,
shifting with the lazy evening breeze to keep,
as best she could, from both smoke and heat.

“What about Hiram the tanner across the way,
he has daughters the right age,
                        have you spoken to him?”

“Ha!” Joseph bent and took a pebble from the rooftop
(how did they keep getting up here?)
to toss hand to hand as he talked:
“To him and four others in the past week.”

The pebble arched higher and
higher and his arms stretched,
moving faster and faster,
testing the limits of his balance,
until he caught it and held it in his hand,
as he turned to look at Mary.

“They’ve all heard what happened with Rubin’s Sarah,
how he talked her half to death with his coming
kingdom until she went flying in tears to her mother;
how he turned Rubin’s kitchen into a scripture
debate society whenever he came,
until, to hear Rubin tell it, there was no room
for the ordinary business of being a family;
how he camped in Rubin’s shop day after day
with all the apprentices gathered about him,
Rubin’s, and everyone else’s all along the street,
until the Rabbi came himself and asked Rubin
if he was planning to open a synagogue of his own.”

He put the pebble carefully on the bench
between his legs and turned it,
as though looking for its best face.
“I tell you, none of them will have him,
not with his God mindedness and
his constant talk of God his father.
It frightens them.”

He picked the pebble up again
and rolled it in his open palm.
“Oh, they say otherwise…
they say they worry he’ll never make a living,
that my shop will not survive me in his hands,
and then, in the next breath,
ask for his work when anything
new must be made. It makes no sense,
but there it is.”

Mary pushed her hair straight back
from her forehead with a distracted hand.
“Then what will we do? Who will he marry?
He must marry. He’s seventeen already.
The relatives have begun sending suggestions
               from Capernaum,
               Sixteen year old girls, eighteen even,
smelling of fish every one of them,
as though Y’shua needed their leavings.”

“They mean well.”
Joseph leaned over and stole a
piece of bread from the stone,
blowing both it and his fingers before tearing it,
putting a piece to his mouth and chewing.
“And they don’t know what it’s like
to live with him, do they?
I can’t say I always understand it myself.”

He swallowed and tore the bread again.
“And honestly, Mary, I don’t know if I could inflict him,
as he is, on another family.
I don’t know if it would be fair to the girl,
to the father, and think of his poor mother-in-law,
always having to mind her tongue,
always with his eye upon her, always
asking her to measure herself for God’s kingdom.
We’re used to it, and it’s not easy for any of us.”

“But he would make such a good father.”
Mary sank back on her heals and
gazed out over the rooftops of the neighbors.

“You’ve seen how the children are always
around him, following him everywhere;
how he is always telling them stories,
picking them up, making them toys,
how they love him.”

Joseph chuckled and waved the bread in his hand.
“Oh, and he’d make a splendid shepherd too,
now that the sheep have learned his voice.
You should see how they cluster
at his side of the fold when he passes,
though he has been too old to go
out with them for more than three years.
That doesn’t mean he is going to keep sheep, Mary.
This is Y’shua we are talking about.
He will do what he thinks ‘his father’
wants him to, and I don’t mean me!”

“I worry…” Mary caught Joseph’s eye and held it.
“He has no friends. Fellows. Companions.
Oh yes. I see them. Followers even.
That crowd would push over a cart of melons
just to see the smash, but he has
no one he can talk to. He is so alone.”

“There is always God…” said Joseph,
“his Father is surely with him,
and I worry more about the synagogue
getting pushed over than a cart of melons
with that crowd, but they are just young,
                                                        as is he.”

Joseph threw the pebble over the roof edge,
and in doing, saw Y’shua there in the stair.
He winked and drew Y’shua up
to the roof with a hook of his head.

“Your mother and I were just discussing your well-being.
She’d like to marry you off before you’re too old to father children.”

Y’shua grinned. “And how old were you when you married, father?”

Joseph laughed. “Ah, but that was different.
I was waiting for the perfect woman,
and it took them that long to offer your mother.”

Suddenly serious, too serious Rubin’s Sarah would say,
Y’shua sank down next to the bench
and drew in dust at his feet.
“Honestly, father, I’ll marry the first girl
who will really have me, all of me,
who will go where I have to go,
and do what I have to do,
who knows God as her one Father
and knows no fear.”

“Well, that’s it then,”
Mary slapped the bread down hard on the stone,
“there will never be a woman good enough for you!”

“Not unless God gives me one.”
He went and took his mother by the elbow,
brushed her cheek with a kiss,
bent and took a stack of bread
from the fire’s edge where it warmed.
“I’ll be back.”

“But where are you going? It’s supper time.”
Mary reached to catch him,
and Joseph put out a hand to still her.

“Oh, I don’t know.
Maybe I’ll find a cart of melons to push over,
just to see the splash.”

And he left. Humming a psalm.

Mary sank back to her heals.

Joseph took up another pebble.
“No one ever said it would be easy
to be the mother of the son of God, Mary.
Especially at his age.
Maybe we have it easier than we might expect.
At least we know the melons are really safe
and I have to believe the synagogue
can take care of itself.”

The Temple

When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. (Luke 2:42-43 NIV)

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Only desperation drove Joseph back to the temple that day,
three days into a frantic search for his son,
leaving Mary hollow-eyed in the porch,
pulling, finally, out of her hard hands,
leaving her reaching, alone, under the hooded
eyes of the widows and wives who gathered there,
who spent their days huddled on this far shore,
camped on the beach of God’s awareness,
forbidden to enter the sea.

He pulled away and into the cool male shade of the inner courts,
the quiet, the undersea calm, guilty to have escaped,
and guilty to feel his escape, from her panic her hysteria,
the fear that, moment by moment,
mounted and made her into a stranger.

“Excuse me, Rabboni, have you seen a boy,
so high, still in his festival robes…?”

Beyond the temple, Jerusalem simmered,
huge and hungry, strange, full of unknown faces,
piecing itself back together after the exit of the pilgrims.
Each day that passed the city closed itself
more completely to them,
until Joseph wanted to take it by the throat
and shake it until his son, like Jonah, fell out,
but who could get hands on this whale.

“Rabboni…”

He was apparently invisible here,
wearing the dust of three days and nights in the street
in this sea washed place of the white robes and shifting currents,
wearing his need, carrying no sacrifice.
He wondered if he should have stopped to buy a dove?

He plucked at a passing robe.
“Rabboni, a boy, twelve years old, five days
ago we were here with the pilgrims—
a man I should say, his first sacrifice,
it made an impression, I could tell,
maybe he came back, maybe he is here?”

But the priest only gave him a cold stare and passed on.

“Can you help me?
Can someone, anyone, 
please help me find my son?”

And so he wandered deeper, rounding corners
and the light from the surface fell upward above him,
and he wanted to just stop and let himself sink,
sink finally under the sea-weight into the stone.

And then, finally around a corner no different than any other,
a shaft of sun lit an inner courtyard
and a cluster of men on rising steps around.
He heard laughter, shattering the quiet of the temple,
voices contending, echoing, full of sharp thrust and parry,
full of the sound of splashing self-importance,
as the scholars played in the shallows at the edge of the sea,
and knew he had found the teachers of the law.

He almost passed right by, only caught,
in the corner of his eye, the tousled head among them,
only heard with a father’s ear the unfinished voice,
and the questions… those questions…

“But wasn’t the Sabbath made for man?
Why do you tie up God’s gift with so many ropes,
so many rules, only the rich can get at it?”

That could only be Y’shua…
Like a swimmer come at last to shore,
Joseph felt bottom and stood,
head above water for the first time in three days,
and breathed.

His son, when Joseph edged closer,
sat cross-legged in the center of the court,
scrolls of the law scattered about him,
and the teachers ranged above him on the benches and stairs,
leaning in, puzzled, slightly scandalized,
a few delighted, by this bright boy, beardless,
barely a man, who had come to question them on the law,
who wouldn’t, for that matter, take “no” for an answer,
who just kept coming back to:

“God is ‘yes,’ always ‘yes,’ never ‘no’!
That is the one true test of every law!”

“God says ‘you will,’ not ‘you should,’
and never, all by itself, ‘you won’t.’
If he says ‘you won’t,’ it is because,
in the hardness of our hearts,
that is all we can hear.
He has always already given us a ‘you will’ that should prevent us;
it is impossible, or ought to be, to do the ‘will’
and the ‘won’t’ at the same time and still be one man.
God is ‘yes,’ not ‘no’!”

“But…” “But…” “But…but…but…!”
The teachers stammered,
running over themselves with objection,
angry or laughing, thoughtful or contentious.

Joseph could barely suppress his own laugh
as he broke the circle to come to his son’s side
and fold himself down with a hand on Y’shua’s shoulder.

“My Father is not ‘but,’ either, is he?
He is all of one piece and accepts no exceptions.”

“Y’shua.”
The boy turned his head slowly to meet
his father’s eye with a self-conscious smile.
Joseph turned to the teachers, stood and bowed.
“Forgive us, masters, but this is my son
who has been lost these last three days.
He is only young and knows no better.
His mother waits in the porch and we must go to her.”

And he pulled him up and steered him
out of the court into the shadowed hallway.
Joseph leaned in and whispered as they walked,
as they hurried, one conspirator to another,
“You must be careful my son.
They did not hear the “My Father” that time,
but they are not as deaf as you may think them.”

Joseph paused at the last doorway
out to the porch were Mary waited.
He turned Y’shua to him and looked him up and down.
He sighed. “And now…your mother.”

Mary came wailing from her corner
in a storm of dusty robes, sleeves and hems,
hood and veil, to wrap herself around Y’shua
and push him half back through the doorway.
Only Joseph’s sudden hand stopped her
from violating the sanctuary with her womanhood,
and he pulled them both back to safety
in the center of the porch.

Mary finally straightened, releasing Y’shua,
stepping back, gathering herself,
her relief hardening visibly into anger behind her eyes,
ready to strike, but Joseph forestalled her
with a hand gentle over her mouth.

“He is found.”
Anger faded to pain.

“Why, my son? Didn’t you know we would miss you?
Didn’t you think of our pain when we found you gone?
Didn’t you know we would look and worry and fear and grieve for you?
And here! To find you here!
                                                  Here!”

She shuddered and almost fell,
seeing again the blood among the thorns of a woven crown,
snatching his hand turning the wrist as though she expected
to see it pierced, rubbing the whole skin with wonder.

And with wonder he answered.
“But mother, didn’t you know I would be
in My Father’s house, doing his business?
Where else in Jerusalem would I be?
Isn’t this why we came?
Why I came?”

And he turned and took it all in.
The money changers, the sellers of sacrifice
with their cages of doves and pens of lambs
without spot or blemish, the women waiting,
pressed to the screen that separated them forever
from the house of God…the sinners, the unclean,
clustered as close as they could come,
as close as they dared, to the hope
and healing they believed lay within.

And a great sadness took him, shook him,
threatened to sweep him away and drown him,
and he heard the sound of falling stone
and smelt the dust of broken rock,
the smoke of burning cedar,
saw the gold vessels pool at his feet to become plunder,
and shuddered to his soul, as though
it were he, himself, who had been broken.

“No, I am done here…for now.”

He took his mother’s hand,
and looked up to catch Joseph’s eye.
“Let’s go home.”

He could not ignore the springing hope in Mary’s eyes.

“For now, mother.
                                     For now.”

 

Shepherd

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15: 3-7 NIV)

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They were waiting, his brothers,
the other boys his age,
four hundred yards from the last
house of the village in the dark,
set for ambush where the track
wound among the standing stones.

They leaped out,
circling like a pack of dogs,
driving him on, stumbling…

“Hey! Y’shua!” “Bastard boy…”
           “Where’ve you been?”
“Looking for his father in a bush, I bet.”
            “A burning bush…” “Ha ha.” “Ha ha.”
“Ha ha.”                “Ha ha.”
“Left the sheep to straggle home alone.”
                               “Some shepherd…”
“Dragging in after dark, ashamed of daylight he is.”
“Did you lose something Y’shua?”
                 “Fell asleep, didn’t you?”
“Listening to the angels sing again?”
“He’s been with his father up in the clouds;
                   see the raindrops in his eyes…”
“Yeah. There’s mud on his cheeks where they ran down.”
“Ha ha.”
          “Ha ha.” 
          “Ha ha.” “Ha ha.”

Y’shua clutched the lamb tighter to his chest and,
with a short run that tore his tired lungs,
pushed through the ring of laughter and turned.

He caught the eye of each tormenter,
moving silent from face to face in the starlight
until each dropped his own eyes;

they let him go…

His brother James came from
the back edge of the circle,
his face set with shame and anger,
and fell in beside, half lopping to keep
up with his brother’s longer stride.

“You’re in for it now, you know…
They’re all there at the fold waiting:
Uncle Samuel, Benjamin, the widow Miriam
old Saul…all of them!
They’re mad about the sheep,
saying they never should have trusted
you with a shepherd’s turn.

“Father…he just sits smiling,
telling them the sheep are safe home,
at least, making them all madder.

“And the women…they’re all at mother, old crows…
‘A wolf has taken him…’ they say,
‘or a lion.’
‘He hasn’t sense enough to protect himself…
what are they thinking sending him
out with sheep…and lambing time too!’”

“Y’shua…” he grabbed his brother by the sleeve
and tugged him round, “Say something!”

“Baaaaaaaaaaat” the lamb felt the boy’s
hold falter as he turned.
Y’shua hitched the woolly bundle up higher in his arms,
feeling the heart race, the breath rasp.
He bent and whispered in the twitching ear
before answering his brother.

“The lamb was lost…”

James, for the first time it seemed,
noticed the bundle of legs,
bright eyes and ears,
heard the exhaustion in his brother’s voice,
saw the ripped hem and the dirt on his robe.

“A lamb?” He stood and shook his head.
Y’shua walked on alone.

The boys circled round through the houses
of the village (once Y’shua’s eye was off them)
and clustered at the edge of torch-light at the fold.

They saw Y’shua come along behind the houses,
saw the elders fall silent,
the storm of their anger taking aim,
saw Y’shua walk through them
to the fold gate and slip the lamb inside,
heard the bleat and blat chorus
as lamb found dam and ewe her lost one.

There was a humphing and a stir among
the elders when they saw the lamb,
a general swallowing of words already half spoken,
a shuffling of feet and shifting of eyes.

Old Saul finally spoke…
“Ah…Y’shua…the sheep came home alone…”

Miriam, never one to be done out of a good harangue,
pushed forward, caught hold of the rags of her rage, and spit…
“You left them in the hills! With lions! With bears!”

“I left them,” Y’shua said, “with my father,
who rides the thunderheads and sets limits on the sea,
who feeds the lions and the bears
and the monsters of the deep,
who keeps the sheep he gives us…
keeping both them and us,
in the hollow of his hand, in the center of his heart…
while I, I went to find that one lost lamb.”

He looked again from face to face,
seeing the young shepherds’ eyes behind
the white beards and the grizzled forelock braids,
seeing the goat-maid, windblown and sun-brown,
still harbored within the widow.

He remembered the anguish of the search,
the wrenching panic when,
as hour by hour the light drained from the sky,
and he could not find that single lamb…

He heard again, echoing among the rocks,
the pathetic, life-lost, bleat that pulled him
at last to the high ledge.
He felt the bite of the stone again,
sharp beneath his hand,
heard the slither as the slope gave
beneath his sandaled foot,
smelled the bruised herbage
and the urine fear of the lamb
mingled with his own too-sweet sweat…

He remembered too, the joy that washed him
when the lamb was safe in arms,
the up-welling peace, warm and homily,
smelling of wool and dust and life,
that carried him past weariness and night-fear home.

He saw Joseph’s slow smile,
and knew they knew, all of them.

“And which of you would not have done the same?”

He left them grumbling, wagging heads
and tongues at his boldness (at his knowing)
as Joseph gathered him, arm across his shoulders,
and took him home.