Holy Week Spiritual Practice: A Brilliant Darkness

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

 

Books:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein: It’s Tolkein—what can I say! I confess that I found the books wordy until I read them aloud to my daughter. Speaking the words, hearing them in the air—that’s what they deserve. I recommend reading Tolkein’s trilogy aloud at least once (though not in one sitting!). In both story and language, Tolkein’s epic washes our souls in majestic beauty.

Film:

The Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson: Can anyone watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and doubt that film is art? Can we view these movies without wondering to what impossible but vital quest God might commission us—and who would be our faithful Sam? And could we, Gandalf-like, find ourselves one day transformed?

Endurance Exercises:

Silent Night Walk: While walking, open your soul and all your senses to the majesty and mystery of darkness.

Negative Space: In the spirit of Dionysius’s “ray of darkness,” create a drawing using negative space. Negative space simply means drawing the empty spaces around an object, rather than the object itself. Don’t worry about “being an artist.” Simply view the world in a new way.

Music:

“Not by Sight” by Petra: It has enough rock drive to push me along my daily walks and enough confident faith to challenge me to endure, for one more minute, this darkness. The beat grounds me, and the words stick around for the day.

“Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues: Is this great stuff, or what? Lush with imagery of darkness and light, the smooth and the rough, this music feels like the mysterious night.

~excerpted from When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Advertisements

From the Margins: Rahab

Soul Thirst

They call me whore. When we pass on the street, heads down, eyes averted lest I contaminate them, they utter the word beneath their breath and hurry by, spewing judgment. They have seen their husbands and fathers and sons look long at me; bitterness must find a scapegoat somewhere. That is my role: scapegoat and whore. So be it.

I ceased long ago to live in their world. My life has been cruel, but life has given me a family—father, mother, brothers and sisters—all who depend on me for bread. I did not ask to be caregiver for so many, but I will do what I can. What I must. We are debt slaves, required to pay our obligations. I have some enterprise, for I am a woman of drive and intellect. I weave wool and I mill flax. But these tasks alone cannot provide for so many. I whore to feed my family. One day I will not be attractive enough or well enough even for that, but by then my parents will be dead and perhaps I can get by on my other work. That is the only hope I afford myself. For what could possibly change a life such as mine?

And then the rumors. I hear them from other prostitutes who hear them from their clients: they whisper of a wild transient tribe that dried up the waters of the Jordan and then slaughtered King Og and King Bashan. A thrill in my gut—is it fear or hope?—tells me the God these people follow has power. Power carries meaning for me, for powerlessness has been my life-long companion.

We are a walled city, I tell myself. Why fear a rag-tag tribe and their traveling God? And yet I do fear, for walls are built by human hands upon an earth built by hands I cannot see. What if those hands grasped our walls and toppled them?

Then two of them came—straight into our town, straight into my house. It looked to my condemners like business as usual. But for once I had the power. The spies visited my house; I could do with them as I willed: turn them over to the king, if I chose. Perhaps be rewarded. But I knew by now not to trust the power brokers of Jericho. These two men, spying out my city, felt more like kin than my own king. And their God seemed worthy of my loyalty. This day I could choose to be the woman I knew, rather than the woman others chose to see.

I hid the men under a flax pile on my roof. When the king’s men came looking, I lied. Told them my clients left before the city gates closed. If the seekers hurried, they might just catch them.

The spies emerged then, covered in flax and reeking of the fear sweat. I pressed them to spare my family when their God took our city. I had no doubt this God could do whatever He chose, for here was power beyond imagining. The spies promised, on condition that I hang a crimson weaving cord from my window and secret my family inside our house. I agreed, and lowered the two by rope over the wall and into the waiting dark. I cut a crimson cord, fastened it to the window and felt, for the first time in my memory, the hope of freedom.

Then came the strange daily marches: seven of their holy men carrying trumpets and four bearing on poles a golden box that flashed fire in the sun. The holy men blew their horns into the silence for, though the entire tribe, thousands and thousands of them, paraded behind their priests, not one made a sound other than the slap, slap, slap of sandals against dirt: nothing but the padding of countless feet, and the eerie sounding of the trumpets day after day, circling our city and then departing. I watched, mesmerized, and a thrill of something between wonder and horror settled in my belly. Six days all. Six days of trumpets and silent parading. People in the streets joked about it, making it small and silly, but I could feel their fear. It hung in the air, cloying and cold, and we could not escape it.

The seventh day began as the others: trumpets sounding in silence, a soundless circuit of the city walls. But when the wanderers completed one circuit of the city, they began again. A second circuit…and a third…and a fourth, fifth, sixth. The tribe began to circle Jericho a seventh time. Watching from my window, I saw their leader give a signal. Shouts erupted from the mass, shouts so loud, so fierce, and so wild, that I cupped my hands over my ears. My heart raced—it was happening—and I propelled my family to the center of our home. “No one leaves,” I commanded. “No matter what.”

The earth writhed beneath us and the walls above us rocked. Then the sounds and smells of falling rock and rising dust. Screams from the injured and the terrified. On and on it went until the only world I could imagine was the small space in my home and the people who occupied it. We could barely see for all the pulverized stone and dust in the air. We breathed it in and coughed it up. But we stayed, though our terror compelled us to run.

I bullied my family into submission. I had cared for them all along, had I not? They must trust me now. We must wait in place as our city collapses around us.

Two familiar faces emerged from the dust-laden air: the spies I had sheltered days ago. They led us out of the city and into the Israelite camp. I stood, watching war fires eat away what was left of Jericho; I watched my home and my business descend in ashes. Even from our distance, the smell of burning reached and engulfed us, stealing into our hair and our clothes. But I also watched the fire consume my debts. I was a free woman: my family safe and free. True, we were outsiders among these people, but had I not been an outsider all my life?

From the Margins: Jochebed’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I am a slave child: my life poured out in service to others. Yet, since birth I have heard tales of a God Who promised our forefather Abraham a nation and a land. I was suckled on stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Leah and Rachel. Stories of a protector God. A deliverer God.

Where was God when Hebrew babies floated dead in the Nile?

Then came my mother’s third labor. Mother shoved rags into her mouth to stifle the screams of child bearing. This baby would be born in the dark, alone, with me as the only attendant. I had never seen my mother so: sweating and writhing in pain, eyes fierce. Wildly determined to make no sound. The child came with the dawn: a male child sentenced on birth to death.

“Miriam,” said Mother after I had laid the cleaned child in her arms: “We must secret your brother. God’s blessing and hope rests upon him.” I nodded, feeling our smallness against the awesomeness of Pharaoh’s will.

So we hid him, muffled his cries with our own bodies, anticipated his needs so that he would not scream his distress. Our eyes grew hollow with wakefulness, our hearts more determined as our task grew more incredible.

And then came the night he screamed and could not be muffled. The risks we had taken until that moment were nothing to what Mother resolved to begin with the next dawn. She fled our hut as the sun rose, and she came late to Pharaoh’s field.

That night, Mother removed the blanket covering a bed of reeds she must have gathered during the day. I watched her skillful fingers plait a lidded basket. Father brought home a bucket of tar. Its acrid aroma invaded our hut as she smeared the stuff inside the basket, into its belly and lid. She covered, and recovered, every inch. I asked no questions, but my eyes missed nothing. As for Mother, she labored in silence. Her task moved her beyond words; I would honor her with my silence.

When, with the dawn, she bundled my brother in a blanket and laid him in the basket, I watched from my pallet. When she set out on a solitary journey, her steps weighted with dread, I followed, silent and wary, behind. Peering between the reeds, I watched her set the basket on the gentle waves of the Nile. I read in her face the same fierce determination I saw on the birthing stool. Her eyes flashed fire and tears as she turned and walked the path to Pharaoh’s fields.

I would not go to the fields this day. I would stay here, a familial spy, for my mother and brother. The Nile shallows rocked my brother and my heart pounded out a lullaby.

In time, the reckless wisdom of Mother’s plan came clear. The Egyptian princess, adorned in her finery, came to the river to bathe. Her attendants followed discretely behind, carrying her bathing things. Was I more terrified that the princess’ eyes would fall on my brother’s small craft or that they would not? I had no time to decide, for her sharp eyes spied something amiss in the reeded waters. I shrank back as a slave girl waded to the basket and glided it along the waters to her mistress.

The princess lifted the lid; an all-too familiar wail filled the morning air. No more hiding. No more waiting. My brother had been seen by Egyptian eyes. From my hiding place, I watched the princess peer into the basket. Her hand, tender, crept inside. Her face softened. I had seen that look on our women when they beheld a suffering child. An Egyptian feeling compassion for a Hebrew? How could Mother have known such a thing?

“It is one of the Hebrew babies,” the princess said. She lifted my brother from his basket into her arms. He nestled against her, still wailing, seeking her breast. My feet launched me forward before my mind could form thought. As I stood before the princess, God seared my imagination with a wild possibility. Princesses did not attend to the care of infants, this I knew, not even their own.

“Do you need a nurse for the child?” I asked, speaking as no slave should speak to royalty.

Her kohl-rimmed eyes studied me. Measured me. Measured my purpose.

“Yes,” she said slowly. “Do you know someone?” I felt sure wet nurses lived in the Egyptian palace, but she and I had come to an understanding.

“I do,” I answered, keeping my smile of triumph as secret as we had kept my brother.

“Get her.”

I ran to Pharaoh’s field. “Mother! Mother!” I shouted. “The princess needs you!”

 

I stand today, an aged woman on the far side of the Red Sea, but I do not feel my age for, at last, we are a free people. My brother, wearing his Egyptian name Moses, is the leader of a new nation: Abraham’s nation and Sarah’s nation; Isaac’s nation and Rebekah’s nation; Jacob’s nation and the nation of Leah and Rachel; Moses’ nation; my nation. With my Hebrew sisters, I take up my tambourine, fix my eyes on my brother, and lift my voice in praise…

From the Margins: Pharaoh’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I was princess of all Egypt. But, powerful as I was, I could not foresee the penalties of my mercy. Had I a future vision of the Egypt I see today, would I have made the same choice? I know not, for I cannot imagine life without my adopted son. And I came to think so little, to care so little about his race or station, that when he rescued his own people, I counted myself forsaken. My son connected me with these slave people in ways I never expected. What, after all, has Power to do with weakness? We, the Egyptians, were Power. At least, so I believed until the day my eye caught something floating in the Nile River reeds.

I came down that day to bathe, accompanied by my slave girls. I was always accompanied. A princess is without solitude, even in her bath. I cleansed myself far from the killing waters. Our soldiers drowned the Hebrew baby boys downstream; I told myself my bathing waters were clean and pure. I told myself Father did what he had to do. And then I thought of other things. I was, after all, a princess, and one day, when I had reigned long as queen and traveled to Duat, even then my slaves would serve me. Buried with me, they would serve me in the afterlife. I was Power. Eternal Power. Slaves were interchangeable, doting pets to be replaced when they grew old and troublesome. I took little or no notice of any of them. Until that day at the river.

I bid my slave girl fetch the strange object. She waded out, waist deep, and was soon lost among the reeds. In time I saw her, straining to wade back carrying the burden. Exhausted, she finally laid it on the waters and guided it, floating, within the circle of her arms, until she reached me. She looked up, fearful. “Heavy,” she said.

But I had no fear—not then. I lifted the lid and the baby within wailed. A Hebrew baby: I recognized the coarse weave of the blanket. What a countenance he had. His infant eyes saw and claimed me. I had never before truly looked into the face of a Hebrew slave. If this is what they were…I could not let this one die when it is in my power to save him.

The sister appeared at my side, as resolve took shape in my heart. I knew who she was from the hungry eagerness in her eyes; it was all she could do not to snatch up the child and soothe his wailing. I assented to her suggestion of a wet nurse, amazed at the ingenuity of these peoples’ women. The mother appeared, fearful but determined, and we struck our bargain. I would protect her as she raised her son, even pay her to do it, until he was weaned. But then he would be a son of Egypt and I his mother. We never discussed the child’s parentage; it was our unspoken understanding.

Across his growing years, we faithfully kept our pact. I gave him an Egyptian name, but in deference to his mother’s courage, one that bore a pun from the Hebrew language: Moses, to draw out. I little knew Moses would draw out from Egypt its great Power—and mine.

I raised him in Egypt’s ways, but his blood was Hebrew. In the end it was to them his heart turned. He would make them free. And to do so, he would rip from Mother Egypt, from me, the riches we had so long enjoyed.

My son is gone; wandering the desert with his slave nation. He left Egypt bereft; our crops ruined, our cattle sickened, our firstborn and our army dead. What Father Pharaoh sowed in infanticide returned to him—and to all of us–full measure: justice meted out by my adopted son and his Hebrew God.

Resentful eyes turn on me as I walk the palace halls. To them I am the mother of their sorrow. I will carry their blame throughout my life. If I could choose again when I lifted the lid of that basket, would I not, myself, cast the infant boy into the Nile? Or would I again rescue the boy child in his basket boat? I see again his eyes, his face.

I would save him again. In an instant.

From the Margins: Jochebed’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am, to many, one nameless, forgotten face among countless forgotten slave faces. I am remembered only because of my connection to one whose name both Scripture and history revere. But I also have a name: a Hebrew slave name. I am Jochebed. I carry my name and the story that accompanies it with honor. For I, with God’s help, rescued my nation’s rescuer. What mother would do else?

I grew up in the arms of violence; saw neighbors beaten by slave masters and knew the sting of the whip against my own young flesh. I tended my slave father’s wounds and, when I married, the wounds of my slave husband, Amram. I expected to do the same for the children I bore. But Pharaoh’s past violence could not prepare us for the brutality he visited on us in the season before my second son’s birth.

Pharaoh, captive of his own terror, feared the vast numbers of his Hebrew slaves. We were a hardy race and plentiful. He feared we would revolt and seize his throne. He could not bear the thought of leading a life like ours, so he stole the lives of our male children. A short-sighted choice. In so doing, Pharaoh deprived himself of the strong backs and free labor those boys would provide in coming years. But the terror of the instant made him blind to the future.

Pharaoh commanded our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill Hebrew infant boys on the birthing stool. But our women were artful: they attended to the birth of healthy boys, then told Pharaoh that we hearty Hebrew women gave birth before they arrived. So Pharaoh drowned our baby boys in the Nile River. We covered our ears as the screams of bereaved mothers pierced the night air. I trembled and laid a hand against the small life moving in my womb. I would find a way. I would rescue my child.

He was born a boy, as I knew he would be. But he was born with a beauty I could not have expected. God made this child for a holy purpose: I saw it in the child’s solemn gaze and in his princely countenance. My boy would not die at the hands of violence. I would see to that.

With the help of my husband Amram, son Aaron, and daughter Miriam, we hid the child for three months. Then one night, my son woke in a terror and was screaming before we could muffle the sound. We heard movements nearby. Terror sweat beaded my brow. But, as I soothed my sleep-troubled child, my fear fled before my determination. The Egyptian soldier would have to kill me before he could wrest from me my son. In the dimness, I surveyed the watchful faces of my family. He would have to kill us all first.

But the noise was merely a Hebrew neighbor seeking the privy trench; we were safe for the moment. I lay awake, cradling my son, and pondered. I must act. Now. In those twilit hours I formed an outrageous plan. It had the stamp of insanity on it. And it was our only chance. I whispered into Amran’s ears as our children, at last, slept. He grunted acceptance. I could tell he thought we would all die.

Before dawn, I rose and made my way down to the Nile, where I cut an armload of papyrus stalks. I hid them in our hut before going to labor in Pharaoh’s fields. That night I wove a basket. Amram brought home a bucket of tar from the shipyard and this I smeared inside, sealing all spaces between my weavings. Then I lay awake, aching to catch the slightest sound from my sleeping son. This one last night, and then…

As the sky turned bare gray, I rose and wrapped my baby in a blanket. I laid him in the watertight craft. “Be still my son,” I soothed as his arms flailed and his legs pumped in objection. “Today I obey Pharaoh. Today I cast you into the Nile.”

I journeyed silent and on foot to the river. I thought my son and I traveled alone, but a spy had followed me, tracking my every step. At the water’s edge, I lay my hand against the basket lid, a final blessing, and then set the woven boat in the water amidst the reeds. I could not stay. The slave master would come searching. I must now leave my son’s future in the hands of another woman: one who could as easily destroy him as rescue him. Could a woman of child-bearing age sentence another woman’s infant to death? I gambled—gambled with my son’s life—that she could not. Even though she was the daughter of Pharaoh himself.

True Hopes

IMG_6695

Advent Piece 2

Each day of Advent, in honor of Word becoming flesh, I’ll seek, with art-making tools, to flesh out a word of the season. No conclusions here, though. These interactive “art samples” are more about raising questions than providing answers. Thanks to David McKee, photographer of this piece. Double click to see it larger.