From the Margins: Mary Magdalene

Soul Thirst

They hammered in my head day and night, year upon year, until I did not know waking from nightmare. They screamed at me to destroy myself and gnawed me until I tore at my hair to rid myself of their teeth.

Then, in a flash of rational thought, I’d know the demons had me, that they played sordid games with my mind, and that I could not stop them. Those rare moments of sanity were nearly as bad as the demon times, so enraged did I become at my powerlessness against my attackers. A fit was on me when I first heard his voice; like soothing balm, it bathed my ravaged mind.

He laid calm hands upon my matted, sweaty hair. Again I heard his voice and looked up into his eyes. I read in them sorrow; I’d seen that look and knew what would follow, what always followed—first the shock of horror and then the embarrassed dismissal.

Not so this time. His eyes sharpened and focused, a piercing power. I was now the fearful one, the one who wanted to turn away.

“If I let him, he may heal me; but if I yield, I could die.”

“Then die,” I told myself. “For what life is this.

I relaxed my will against his ministrations. A screaming began—one voice, then another, another, another…

Was I screaming? I never knew.

I woke to a reasoning mind. For the first time, my eyes looked on a world both sharp and clear. For the first time, I knew who I was, free of the voices that ate at my mind. So I followed the one who gave me life; I listened to his wisdom, watched him heal others, served as I could. Though Peter first named him the Christ, I had known from the beginning the kingly potency of his eyes and voice. He had come for some great purpose, that I knew. I could not wait to see his power unleashed against the Romans as it had been against the demons of my mind.

But now he is arrested. Tried. Sentenced. Crucified. He is gone, forever gone. Tomorrow is beyond bearing; I live for today alone. I remain with him in this hour though my heart aches with grief. My presence is a small gift, for I can change nothing. I cannot rescue him from his tormenters as he delivered me from mine.

I lift my eyes to the cross, its bulk creaking wildly in the wind. I can barely see his face, disfigured by blood, sweat, and pain. Life pours down the naked wood, pooling red at its base. I bear the horror of it only out of a love that takes me past myself.

The sky goes black; he screams against the darkness. Terror sends my heart racing. What now? Will the world—will my world—return to madness? Yes, for we are surely mad already. We are killing my Lord.

In the darkness, his voice rings with wild power: “It is finished!”

He is dead.

I stand there, forgotten, as they disentangle his limbs from the nails, as they wrap his body and bear it away. Far behind the sorrowing procession, I follow, lost in solitary grief. At Sabbath’s end I will come to his tomb—a final tribute—and do what I can. It will not be enough. But in a world gone mad, it will be, at least, something.

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

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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.

From the Margins: Sarah’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am called Sarah—Sarai until God changed my name. Sarah. Princess.

For much of my life I thought the title a cruel joke. Princess, I asked God, of what? I felt more a slave than royalty. In the young days of our marriage, we were settled alongside our kin in Haran. I thought it would always be so. Then God came to my husband and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So my husband went and, because I am his wife, I too, left what was known to me to follow Abraham’s faith.

In those young days I was beautiful. My husband’s eyes softened when they gazed on my face. And yet my beauty, when married to my husband’s fear, cast me into danger and humiliation. It happened this way. Hunger drove us from God’s promised land into Egypt. Abraham, fearful that my beauty would lead to his death, commanded me to declare myself his sister only. We were half-brother and half-sister, for we came from the same father’s seed. But I was also Abraham’s wife and not allowed to claim my role when Pharaoh’s eyes fell on me.

Pharaoh took me into his household to make of me a concubine. I will never forget walking through those wide and sunlit halls, the sheer raiment the people wore, their strange customs and language. Sick with terror, I tried not to imagine my future even a day hence in this place, much less a lifetime. Would I die, old and abandoned, in this place?

But, God be thanked, Pharaoh proved to be an honorable man. When he discovered the ruse, he set me free.

The years went forward. God’s promise of children seemed as dry to me as my empty womb. Each month, when the bleeding came on me, I wept as with a death. God still spoke promises to Abraham, but my husband told me nothing; perhaps he sought to spare me the ravages of hope. In time nature took from me all possibility of bearing the promised child. I did not bleed, but not because a child was growing in my womb. Rather, because age grew there. Death seemed nearer to me than life.

Thinking God must have promised a son to Abraham, but not to me, I offered my Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife. Her ripe womb bore Abraham a son of long waiting. But then Hagar turned her eyes on me in disgust. She was the princess and I the slave, useful only for kicking. I begged my husband to intercede, as was the law of our people: he was to judge between his two wives. Abraham said I might do with Hagar as I liked, so I unleashed on her the full rage of my bitterness. I did to her all my position allowed me to do and she bore all her position demanded she bear. Until her soul could swallow my abuse no longer; she fled with her son into the desert.

God cared for Hagar there, just as God cared for me in Egypt. She returned to us for a season and I thought her child, Ishmael, must surely be the son God promised Abraham. I took some small solace for having arranged the match, setting aside my place as Abraham’s only wife. I had given my husband his nation; I tried to be content.

My name became “Old Sarah,” its meaning long forgotten. It was too laughable—a ninety-year-old princess.

And then they came: three strangers emerging from the distant dust, making their way to our tent. As our hospitality code required, Abraham set me to work baking bread from our choicest flour while our servant prepared a calf. I busied myself, preparing and serving. My task complete, I hid in the tent folds and listened. A woman in my situation, after all, has few diversions. I could not join the conversation, but I could sit at the edge of it.

One of the visitors, whose voice at once calmed my body and awakened it with curious emotion, spoke to Abraham as if they were friends of long acquaintance: as if they simply took up a conversation left unfinished. I caught snatches…Sarahson. For the first time, the absurd combination moved me to merriment rather than bitterness. Laughter exploded before I could remember myself and repress it.

“Why did Sarah laugh and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the man asked my husband. “I shall return in due season,” the stranger continued, “and Sarah shall have a son.”

Shamed for having been caught listening, fearful of a man who would speak so sharp and strange, I denied it. But the man would have none of my dissembling. This time he spoke directly to me: “Oh, but you did laugh.”

And I am laughing now, for the stranger made true his promise. I hold in my arms a miracle son. How God produced such hearty fruit from such an ancient womb, I know not. But neither do I care. I never knew my heart could grow so tender until this boy child nestled into my body and slept in my arms. I am a princess, bold and strong, and full of laughter.

From the Margins

Soul Thirst

Each week of Lent, I’ll share a “personal bio” of a biblical woman. The Bible I love dedicates full chapters to some of these women while others are rendered nameless.

Why this Lenten practice? Two reasons. First, the Bible’s narrative is largely told through men about men, with women playing supportive roles. As a woman, I wonder about the lives of these long-ago sisters. What were these stories, seen through their eyes?

But it’s larger than that, which brings me to Reason 2. Due to their gender and culture, these women lived at the margins. Choices made by the Powerful wrenched women from their homes, labeled them pariahs, stole their dignity and, sometimes, their lives. Looking into and through these women’s eyes, we see in our culture’s marginalized (perhaps it’s you, perhaps it’s me) full souls deserving respect, freedom, and love.

As we read of these women, God’s love moves like a thread: weaving our stories into theirs. That thread connects and ennobles us all—all genders, the powerful, the marginalized. We find we can love our neighbors—and ourselves.

Could there be a truth more worthy of Lenten contemplation?

I hope to see you here next week, Feb. 10, on Ash Wednesday, as we share our first story from the margins.

Calling Card

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

An early-morning walk on the first day of a new school year. A six or seven-year-old girl with blond hair almost too short to gather into a ponytail had tugged hers in a curling tail at the crown of her head. Clad in a Christian-school polo and kaki skirt, she stood in her driveway, looking outward. What struck me most was the way she’d accessorized her school uniform: with a string of waist-length silver Mardi Gras beads. I wondered how long she’d be allowed to wear those at school: I hoped all day. We need all the confidence we can muster when facing a Daunting New.

She watched my approach, then threw up a hand in an eager wave. I waved in return, feeling that all-too-common pull between not wounding a child’s open soul and not wanting to be perceived as a threat by her protectors. Where were they, anyway?

As I moved along as she bellowed, “Stop!”

I stopped.

“What if…” she mused, “a doggie was to be a swarzie, and…” then followed a string of English and nonsense words that would have done Dr. Seuss proud. As she spoke, she gazed around, finding inspiration for her story in her surroundings. She wrapped up with: “…and what if the doggie would not go into the street because cars were there.” (Cars barreled by on a nearby road.)

I nodded, considering the wisdom of the doggie’s decision. My feet remained stationery; I didn’t know if we’d finished our chat. She stood in silence for a moment, then, “You can go now.”

Not wanting her to feel I’d not appreciated her story, I said, “Have a good day!”

“Have a good day, too!” she responded as she wandered back toward her house.

I walked on, thanking God for the calling card (in my book, When God Walks Away, I describe God’s calling cards as unexpected experiences that remind us of God’s presence—especially when we feel alone). A child, nervous surely, on the first day of school and seeking a place to set her mind until leaving time, stands outside, watching the world’s business. She spies me and decides in an instant to trust me to share part of her morning, to hear her imagination, and not to dismiss or shame her. Perhaps she would have trusted anyone strolling by, but she also responded to my wish for her to have a good day with a hearty, reciprocal wish. We had created a bond, however fleeting.

I hope the interchange was good for her. I know it was for me. She named who I want to be: someone who deserves to be trusted by children, who honors them, and who encourages the child in each person to imagine and create.

Why Parable? Part 1

Follow the ClownI based my Clown novel series on stories I’ve loved since earliest memory: a type of story called “parable.” Respite its sound, a parable has nothing to do with two of anything, or with a large-hipped fruit, or any kind of male bovine.

What, then, is a parable? Indulge me for a moment in a bit of God geekiness. A parable is a certain type of story. It’s generally brief and employs common, homey elements like baking bread or planting seek or lost money. Then the parable takes those elements and, through the deep magic of story, employs them to turn our upside down world right side up and our outside in lives inside out. In other words, parables start out feeling like a gentle warm bath, and end up as bracingly cold showers. Jesus’ use of parable—of which He was a master—inspired the Clown series. What I hope for myself, what I hope for my readers, is that we live as much as possible in the truth with which Jesus’ parables challenge us.

But there’s more: what’s your response to seeing, hearing, or seeing a great story—be the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Odyssey, or “The Crossing of the Red Sea”? A great story is a treasure of the real and lasting sort—and I believe in sharing the wealth. More than that, stories are roomy. They’re bigger than three points and a poem. There’ a place for sermonizing—I’ve done a bit of it myself—but, let’s face it—most of us would rather hear a cracking-good yarn. There has to be a reason for that. In part, I think it’s because stories don’t spell out what we’re to believe or how we ought to act. They’re spacious: they give us ample room to move around, to glean this now, and that later on. A story read as a child and it is one thing, as a teen and it’s another, as a young parent, yet another thing, as an older adult, something else. Or come to a story while in a happy relationship and it’s one thing, come to it with a broken heart, and it’s another. Stories are multi-sided; like God , they exist beyond our full knowing. Good stories leave us with both answers and questions. We leave them satiated and thirsty, filled and longing…

A Bit Iffy? Pt. 2

The Clown and the Chosen Book Cover

The Clown and the Chosen: 2nd Book in Clown Series

Here’s a third thing about clowns: They’re foolish. It’s a bit iffy to portray God as foolish, right? Well, let’s take a look at that. The medieval court jester’s antics amused crowds at regal gatherings. But the jester had a second vocation: he alone was allowed to speak truth to the king without fear of reprisal. I think the art of stand-up comedy, at least when that comedy speaks hard truths, descends from the vocation of the medieval court jester. Painful truths go down easier with a spoonful of humor.

Plus, what do clowns do? Make fools of themselves. Literally. Whether they’ve cavorting around the ring in enormous pants, being chased by a bull, or throwing a bucketful of confetti into the crowd, they’re just unabashedly goofy. Right out in the open. In them we see ourselves: not the “put-together” image we present to the world, but our whole selves, complete with our inadequacies, our awkwardness, our confusion, our doubts. And we find, smiling at the clown’s bumbling, that those very things can be endearing, even loveable. Clowns invite us to love the whole of ourselves, even the stuff we hide beneath our greasepaint.

And clowns make magic. With their over-the-top wardrobes and wild antics, they delight and entrance. Clowns transport us to a place in which we are free enough to laugh aloud in delight rather than in derision. And, despite her costumed and grease-painted hiddenness, we know that the magicked world the clown creates is the one for which we yearn, because the clown’s world is more powerfully real than any status-quo security. In this world of deepest magic, we can be, at last, who we really are. And so we follow the clown, grease paint and all.

Which brings me to the Clown of my books. Following a Clown—that’s really foolish, right? At least to those who see that Clown as a mere buffoon. And yet there’s an unseen wisdom to our followship, because we are choosing to live in a joy-filled reality that erupts from time to time into the bland status quo, and we can be part of making that happen. To live for anything less is, well, just foolish.

So I hope my readers will see that “creepy” is not in a clown’s true nature, that clowns serve as holy metaphors, because their outward goofiness opens us to an earth-shattering wisdom hidden beneath the greasepaint—that we are loved just as we are, and that God intends to delight us, and to delight in us, for eternity.

A Bit Iffy? Pt. 1

Follow the ClownA clown as a God figure? Seems like an iffy choice, right? For one thing, many people find clowns creepy. I get it: I find snakes creepy myself. In fact, I created a snake art piece in an effort to face down my fears!

Since I’ve chosen to write a whole series with a clown God figure, I’d better explain myself.

First, let’s give clowns their props. After all, they’ve been around in one form or another since ancient times. We have evidence of clowns in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and among the Aztecs. In the Middle Ages boasted court jesters& clowns figured as key characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Plus, we have the French Pierrot and the Italian Pantaloon; we have Whiteface, Auguste, and Character clowns made popular by the English & American circuses. And did you know that each clown’s face is her or his property and is not to be copied?

But here’s the thing about clowns: we don’t know what’s going on behind all that greasepaint. Sure, they look jolly on the surface, but that’s painted on; who knows what’s beneath? Could be outright diabolical. What’s hidden tends to unnerve us. And there’s another thing about clowns: they’re supposed to be innocent, much like dollies and puppies and little kids. Folks working in the horror genre have discovered a market in transforming that which we expect to be harmless and innocent into instruments of evil. Nothing sends the heart racing like being ambushed by what you never expected to have the capacity to do harm. Hence, films and books and video games about evil dolls, evil kids, evil clowns. I don’t know of any evil puppy stories, but I have a few ideas…

Point is, casting clowns as instruments of evil perverts a clown’s true purpose: to delight us and to speak truth.

In contrast, hiddenness is right in line with a clown’s true nature. Behind the greasepaint, the wig or hat, and the huge, distracting clothing, we really can’t see much of the clown’s self. We have to wonder what his motivation is, what is she really thinking? Well, if we’ve spent any time in relationship with God, if we’ve walked around in the world very much, we are moved to wonder at times what God is up to as well. If your life thus far hasn’t brought up some question about God’s goodness and love, just give it time. Sooner or later we discover that God is in many ways confusing, that God is hidden, that faith is WORK. Sooner or later we choose whether or not to give God the benefit of the doubt. Because we can’t see it all. At least, not yet.

Click here to learn more about the Clown series.