Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Unsung Hero

“When...Mary had been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant... ” (Matthew 1:19, Amplified).  Other translations use the word engagement.  Both of these words fall short of the custom they are trying to describe.  The ancient Jewish custom of betrothal was a much stronger, more binding state than engagement in our culture today.  Betrothal is a foreign concept in our own hesitant, commitment-cautious culture.  When a couple was betrothed, it was a sacred promise they would marry each other.  They drew up a legal contract, known as the ketubah hbtk, which said that the groom promised to love and care for his wife and to give himself for her.  The bride, for her part, promised him her yielded life and that she would keep herself pure for him alone.  From that moment on, the bride was viewed as completely set apart for the groom and was referred to as the man’s wife.  Legally, the couple was married.  However, the couple had not yet consummated their marriage.  Couples break off engagements all the time today.  However, for Joseph to break off his betrothal to Mary, he would need divorce papers. 
To say that Joseph was not rich would be an understatement.  He was a hard working boy coming into manhood.  More likely than not, Joseph had probably learned carpentry from his father and was just becoming proficient enough that he could start thinking about setting up his own practice.  He had found a beautiful, Godly girl.  And better than that, Mary had agreed to become his wife.  Life seemed to be going Joseph’s way. 
After the marriage had been arranged and the contract drawn up, the couple entered into the Eyrusin, or betrothal period.  This time was also called kiddushim, which meant “sanctification” or “set apart”.  It was a time when the couple separated themselves from each other for at least twelve months.   During this year, they both prepared themselves to enter into a life together.  The groom was preparing the place where the couple would live, building a house or adding a wing onto his father’s house.  After the appointed year, when the father of the groom gave his nod of approval on his son’s preparations, the groom would come for the bride.  Although the bride knew that the groom was coming, she did not know exactly when he would surprise her.
Joseph worked long hours in the shop, making enough money to support his young bride.  The days crawled by, painfully slowly, as Joseph dreamed of Mary.  He put down his tools and wiped the sweat from his forehead.  Joseph stared off into space as he imagined what it would be like to sweep her off her feet and carry her through the threshold into the huppah, the bridal chamber he was preparing for her.  He smiled dreamily as he pictured the look on her face when he came around the corner with the rest of the wedding party.  I wonder how many times his father and others had to tell him to snap out of his daydreams.
When did Joseph find out about Mary’s pregnancy?  How far into their betrothal period did the angel appear to Mary?  Joseph was separated from her during this time.  How did he find out?  Was it through village rumor?  Joseph would not have believed the gossip that caught his ear as he trudged through Nazareth’s narrow streets.   He knew Mary better than that; he would have dismissed anything he heard as old wives’ warblings.   Most likely, Mary sent for Joseph.  
I can only imagine the pounding of his heart as Joseph went to meet with Mary.  It would have been the first time he had seen her since the betrothal and the covenant he had made for her.   What could she want?  It couldn’t be something good.  This was highly out of the ordinary.  It would have to be something huge for Mary to break the betrothal period.
And then Mary’s story.  The first thing Joseph may have noticed was that Mary would not meet his eyes.  She scurried around nervously getting him a chair to sit on and something to drink, making small talk about the weather.  Or maybe she didn’t beat around the bush.  Maybe she simply started right into her story.  I can almost hear Joseph’s thoughts.   
 Pregnant?  How could she be pregnant?  An angel?  Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit?  What does that even mean?  Yahweh does not get people pregnant.  It’s not possible.  Not Yahweh.  That is blasphemy, reeking of immoral pagan deities.  What is she saying??  Mary must be lying.  But why?  She must have slept with another man.  But Mary would not have done that!  No, not her!  Could a man have forced himself on her?  But then why is she covering for him?  And blaming it on Yahweh?  Why is she sticking to her story so persistently?  Where did she get these ideas?  Does she honestly expect me to believe her??   She is acting like she actually believes it herself!  Can she be crazy?  Seeing things in the night?  And what am I supposed to do about it? 
Joseph must have walked away head spinning.   Looking back for one instant, nausea swept Joseph’s stomach as he saw Mary watching him from the doorway.  The more Joseph thought about it, the more confused and upset he became.  He threw himself into his work, the only thing keeping him from going over the edge with his emotions.  He had to do something soon.  Mary was getting more obviously pregnant every day. 
Joseph’s head was throbbing, trying to somehow logically put together everything.  The price for adultery was high.  Death by stoning was not unheard of, especially if he chose to publically condemn her.  If he stood by her, the entire community would think they had broken their vows and slept together.  Not that he cared that much about his own appearances.  If he left her now, she was defenceless against the scorn and possibly harsh punishment of the community.  But he couldn’t pretend nothing had happened either.  Joseph was a righteous man and did his best to follow the Law, the Torah.  He could not marry her.  Especially with her lying to him and spouting blasphemies about Yahweh.  Joseph worked through everything in his head many times over the next few days. 
But try as he might, he could not ignore his heart.  In the loneliness of his workshop, Joseph threw a piece of wood against the wall and pounded a nearby bench.  His pain was screaming through him.  How could she have done this?  Why had she betrayed him?  She had said she loved him and would keep herself pure for him.  And now this?  Joseph withdrew from everyone into the confines of his workshop.  His hopes were crashing down around him and he needed time to think, time he did not have.
I wonder how long Joseph took trying to decide what to do.  Maybe after a couple weeks, he had finally reached a solution.  He still loved her.  If only she knew how much I love her!  But he could not abandon his faith and his devotion to the Torah.  He would not leave her completely.  He would not publically condemn her.  How could he?  The very thought of everyone looking at Mary and judging her made Joseph’s fist clench.  But he needed to end the betrothal.  It was the only thing to do.
I am so grateful that God did not leave Joseph there.  He knew how hurt and broken Joseph was.  He knew the thoughts, doubts, and fears roaring around his head.  And he also knew the part he was preparing Joseph to play in the epic drama about to unfold.  Someone had to raise the messiah.  Someone had to try to fill the shoes of the boy’s Father in heaven.  God chose Joseph, which says a lot about this humble man’s character. 
But God knew Joseph needed a sign from Him.  God knew Joseph needed something out of the ordinary as well.  An angel appeared to Joseph in his dreams and revealed to him the miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth.  I thank God that He sent an angel to Joseph as well.  It confirmed that Mary was not crazy or a liar and what his own role would be in the months to come. 
Joseph’s part in the epic was just beginning. 
How to get a very pregnant woman halfway across the country, over 70 miles to the south?  Nowhere in the Bible does it say they went on a donkey.  Joseph was a poor carpenter and probably did not own his own donkey.  Whether he borrowed a relative’s donkey, rented one, or walked the entire way is debateable.  But both means of transportation would be equally hard for Mary. 
And then, when they finally arrived at Bethlehem, Joseph had the job of trying to find a place for Mary to give birth.  I can’t imagine the panic Joseph felt as he rushed desperately door to door begging for a somewhere, anywhere, for his wife to have a child.  Joseph must have felt like such a shmuck when all he could find was a dirty stable.  Some man I am.  All I can provide for my wife is this!  Those feelings of insufficiency were probably only intensified in the coming hours as he listened to his wife scream to the darkness as she went through labor.  Joseph probably helped as much as he could, but what could a poor peasant man know about childbirth?  How helpless and panicky Joseph must have felt as that night stretched on and on and his wife painfully delivered her first child.   
And then!  To act on another dream and lead his young family into a foreign country where he did not have relatives or friends and did not know the language.  What a step of faith!
And raising the son of God!  What would it have been like to nurture the Savior of the world? 
There is so much more that could be imagined about this humble man.  I admire Joseph very much.  Although he has only a few sentences in the Bible, never speaks, and fades into the backdrop of the story quickly, I believe he was a very Godly man and played a monumental role in the messiah’s story.  His part is often overshadowed by the Holy Mother.  Mary is an important character as well.  She, in many ways, has it as rough as Joseph.  But there is something about the role Joseph played that commands my respect.  He led his marriage and family through rough times, following God’s commands implicitly and helping father the world's greatest hope: Immanuel.   

Note:  Some scholars believe that Joseph was older than I have portrayed him, between 25 and 35.  In the Jewish culture, it was much more acceptable for an older man to take a younger girl to be his bride.  However, it was hard for me to imagine Joseph too old.  I chose to imagine Joseph around my own age in his early twenties.  Whatever Joseph’s age at the time of the Christmas story, it doesn’t change the internal struggles and doubts he must have faced.        

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Crimson Book

I had a dream the night before last.  Along a windy, narrow street, in the middle of a forgotten part of a large city, a man came walking toward me.  I could tell from his clothes and how he walked that he was not meant to be walking in that part of town.  Every now and again, he would stoop down low in the shadows, where the black brick buildings met the cracked concrete.  And when he came out of the shadow, into the ring of the lonesome streetlights, it seemed as if he was putting his findings into an inner pocket.  As he got closer, I could tell that his clothes, once expensive and better than money could buy, were spattered in blood.  The knees of his trousers were almost worn through and his badly wrinkled shirt was missing buttons.  Right in front of me, he stopped and knelt down again.  From the dirty gutter, he began gathering scraps of paper, which I saw had once been stapled together.  He sifted through them, as if searching for something.  After letting several sheets slide back to the ground, he found one stained, torn leaf, which had been ripped off the rest of the manuscript.  After glancing through it for a few moments, he nodded to himself and put the loose leaf carefully in his jacket pocket.   After he had walked off into the night, I picked up the loose leafs he had left on the ground.  It seemed to be nothing more than the badly written remains of a cheap dime novel. 

My dream then shifted scenes.  I found myself in a small study lit by some sort of flickering firelight.  My feet sunk into a think soft carpet as I looked around.  My eyes were immediately drawn to the books, unlike any I had ever seen, which lined the walls, from floor to ceiling.  They were bound in expensive leather and the pages dusted in gold.  Their only flaw was that on each book’s spine, a streak of some dark substance covered any writing that might have been there.  A strange urge began to rise within me to pull one of the books off the tall shelf and flip through its pages.  I chose one off the shelf, a small blue bound volume, but as I turned it to open its cover, I found the book was bound with a strap of leather around its middle.  At that moment, I heard a cough.  Hurriedly replacing the book where I had found it, I turned to face the cough’s owner.  At the far side of the study, was a figure I had not noticed.  I ventured slowly closer and recognized, from behind, the man who I had seen earlier walking in the alley.  He was sitting at a small, wooden desk which seemed strangely out of place in the plush study, almost bent double over something I couldn't quite see.  His jacket was torn and his hair long and dripping.  I felt no fear of the man, only a curiosity to find what he was doing.  At that moment, he coughed again, uncontrollably, a horrible retching sound which filled the small study as thunder fills the space between the rain drops.  The sound kindled some kind of unexplainable fear in me and made me want to hide, but there was nowhere to go.  As he leaned back in his chair, I caught a glimpse of another book on the desk, like the others around the room.  Beside the book was the scrap of paper I had seen the man choose earlier in the alleyway.  After the coughing had finally stopped, the man leaned back over his work, breathing heavily through a dry, raspy throat.  He was carefully writing with a feather quill, so concentrated that I wondered if he was aware of me at all.  As he worked and coughed, a drop fell heavily from his furrowed brow.  In the light of the study, the drop looked dark and inky, splashing to the desk.  I turned to see what was casting the strange light on the study and saw a fire in the hearth, almost burnt out.  The hearth was ornately carved to look like the branches of an apple tree.  Inside the fire place, orange coals and the tongues of flame licking at what was left of a log mesmerized me.  I thought I heard strange guttural cries and chanting which seemed to grow slowly louder and closer.  The fear I had felt a minute before deepened as I stared into the flames, unable to tear my eyes away.  When I, with great effort, roused myself and looked back toward the desk, the man was closing his book.  As I looked closer, I saw that his hands were bleeding from deep cuts.  He took some of the blood on his shaking fingers and wiped it across the spine of the book.  After he had done this, he sighed heavily and laid his head down in his arms. 

As I watched, my dream changed again and I found myself alone in the same study.  I ventured closer to the desk again, drawn by a deep longing to know what was written on the scrap beside the closed book.  I picked up the torn scrap and scanned its fragments.  And I knew them.  Untethered fear raced through me and I wondered who else had read this scrap.  I turned hastily and threw the paper into the fire.  But as I watched and waited anxiously, the fire would not consume it.  Though I greatly feared the heat of the flames, I reached my hand into the hearth and withdrew the paper.  To my surprise, the fire did not burn me and the paper was not even hot.  Disgusted, I stepped toward the desk again.  I picked up the book, wondering how he could have used the scrap.  The book’s binding was a deep crimson color, bound in gold, the spine stained with his blood.  As I picked up the book, the leather fell away and I was able to open its pages easily.  The book was written in the most beautiful calligraphy I had ever seen, each letter a work of art and each word more than I felt I could bear.  There were pictures as well, which seemed to move as I looked at them.  And the book drew me into it, as the sea draws the river.  I don’t know how long I lost myself in its pages.  I cried as I read, for I knew the story.  The author had taken the fragment and rewritten it.  He had somehow made it into the most beautiful story I had ever felt, heard, or seen.  As the words and pictures washed over me, I wept uncontrollably.  The scrap of paper I had kept balled in my fist fell forgotten to the floor.  How the story ended, I never found out.  For as I sat, immersed in the crimson book, golden sunlight flooded the study and I began to wake.  In the moment between dreaming and waking, I thought I heard a deep voice laughing.  I could do nothing but laugh with it.  I awoke, crying and laughing, in the sunlight of my dorm room.

And though I have tried, I cannot remember what the man’s face looked like.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My Park Bench

"And I declared that the dead, who had already died,
are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun...
This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind."  
    -King Solomon (reportedly the wisest man ever to have graced this planet)

Every week, I withdraw to a secluded part of the park where no one else is around.  I have never showed another living being where I go.  I always sit on the same bench.  Rain or shine, you could find me there, reading a book or staring off into the clouds or watching two squirrels fighting over a nut.

 I would fight you for the bench.

No matter what life throws at me, I know that the park will not change. I can always find refuge on my bench, away from the problems.  I can unbutton the top button of my shirt if I want.  I can smoke my pipe to my heart's content. 

I would kill you for my bench.

I lost my faith somewhere along the way.  I had everything.  And yet I had nothing at all.  A wife, two daughters, and parakeets.  A job that paid more than enough.  But I couldn't find respect.  Or love.  Just contradictions. But I could always withdraw to my bench.     

One day, someone came and sat on my bench.  At first I thought he simply wanted to share my bench.  Although I wasn't altogether happy about the idea, he wasn't planning on sticking around.  Or was he?  Then he told me to get off of the bench.  my bench  Before I knew it, I was off of the bench.  I was upset of course and tried to explain that he couldn't just have the entire thing to himself.  He stretched his arms out wide and said it was his bench. I told him he couldn't have it.  its mine  He wouldn't see reason.  He said he could give me life to the fullest.  Of course I got upset; would you do any differently?
I killed him.  And saw him die on my bench.  I didn't think it would come to that. 

But you understand.  It was my bench.  And He had no right to demand it from me.  No right to it. Who was He, anyways? I hate Him. 

The sun still shines and the squirrels still argue over nuts. I still read and smoke and unbutton my shirt.  I started going almost every day to my bench. It makes the rest of my life mean something.  I am free of everything when I am at my bench.  I am free. So free.  Who needs His life when I have my bench. 

What is your bench?          

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Scripture Sixty-Six

Have you ever had a movie marathon with a bunch of friends?  Watched all three Lord of the Rings back to back?  Maybe all six Star Wars.  Or the Back to the Future trilogy.  There is something about watching the complete story.  Not having to finish it another night.  Especially when all of the movies are telling one central story, like Lord of the Rings. 

That is why I like Scripture Sixty-Six.  Scripture Sixty-Six is an annual Bethel College phenomenon, in which all sixty-six books of God's word are read in a single weekend, without stopping.  Readers start Genesis right after chapel on Friday, reading all through the nights, finishing Revelation before chapel Monday morning.  Different students sign up online to read fifteen minute slots.  Anytime of day or night, for the next three days, rain or shine, someone will be reading.  Wading through Leviticus, lilting the Psalms, stumbling over the seemingly endless genealogies and strange Hebrew names, and listening for God's voice to speak again.  What a way to spend the weekend.      

Of all the epic stories, this has to be the greatest.  The story of how the God who breathes stars and melts mountains molds mankind of the dust on the ground.  How mankind listens to the mortal enemy of God and turns its back on its creator.  And to what lengths He goes to get his wayward bride back.  It is the most beautiful love story of all time.   It is a story of peril, of heart rending pain.  Of adventure and of death.  But most of all, of Life. 

 Although no one will be pulling three all-nighters in a row to hear the story in its full glory, many will come to hear the voice of God.  For He yet speaks for the heart who listens. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Late night at the library

Tired students mill aimlessly around the top floor of the library, chatting with friends while their 'quick study breaks' stretch on longer than they originally were planning. Others stare blankly out the window or log onto facebook.  Anything but homework.  A peaceful, brain-numbing silence hangs over the place, broken only by the sound of a few voices in the computer lab and subdued laughing in the basement, followed closely by a joking "shh!  Don't you know we are in the library?"  Which is inevitably followed by more laughing. 

All of them came with a purpose.  Some wanted a quiet place to finish the last bit of the an essay.  Others needed to get out of their dorm rooms.  The library provides the refuge they seek, a place to hide for a least until midnight.  Some came to see a special someone and sit next to them while they work on their "homework".  Others came to curl up in a chair while they read a Plato or Emerson, or skim through a textbook, wondering halfheartedly why they are even bothering.  A few lucky ones are reading something they actually enjoy.

As the night ticks on, more and more people let their purposes slide.  As closing time approaches, more succumb to the seductive claws of facebook.  Many begin feeling the need to defy the silence, laughing loudly and hollering to a buddy across the room.  However, after a few forced laughs and overly loud jokes, they always lower their voices again.  The library is just that sort of place.   The hermits begin coming out of their nooks and crannies, contemplating facing life again.  People begin trickling, a few at a time, slowly out into the night.

Tonight, go to the library.  Stay until closing time.  As the library empties, stand still and listen for a minute. Tell me the whispered stories you hear.