I Am


I am, says the Eternal Flame to Man.

The Man is afraid, abiding the moment as one in a trance or stranded in a dream idling on the edge of wakefulness. The blaze is hot but not stifling. It is a perfect heat, if such a thing can be perfect. Purple and pink tendrils of lighting reach over the mountaintop as if drawn by the flames. The fire drinks the rain. It is a fire unquenchable just as the force fueling it is unstoppable.

The ground is sacred – take off your shoes and feel the earth. Be in this moment. Hear me. Believe me. Trust me. Do everything I say and never again know the fear of man.

Wake up. I am the Lion and I am the Lamb. I spoke and light tore through dark matter like a splintered diamond. I breathed and the wind skipped across an eternal storm igniting a restless ambition. Wake up. Be light. Know me. I am the Lion and I am the Lamb.

I never tire of the flames or of the furious speed. I do not grow weary at the vastness of my thoughts. The songs of stars are not repetitious to me.

Have you ever waited and listened for the trumpet blast of supernovas? Have you counted the gems of Heaven? Do you know their names or their ages? I have waited – I am Time’s Master. I have counted them all. I know their names. I remember when each was born.

I am the Lion. I am the Lamb.

I am the Phoenix. And the resurrection fire is my cloak.

I am the Healing Serpent untethered and shedding his bronze scales; they lie like sunbaked husks in the desert. You could follow them but your path would be aimless, for the relics do not point to me.

I am the unexpected creature that comes after the Great Unraveling of Time and Space.

I am Abel’s blood, shed on every battlefield. I am the mark, both upon Cain and upon the desperate mob in swift pursuit. Blood for blood. Mine for yours.

I am the Lamb.

Where can righteousness be found? Who is seeking it?

Seek the Lamb. You will be cleansed.

Seek the Lion. You will be vindicated.

Seek the Phoenix. You will be restored.

Seek the Serpent. You will be forgiven.

Seek the unexpected creature. Follow her into the storm, beyond the great terror at the edge of infinite possibility, where love perfected drives out all fear. When you arrive, the only dread will be the dread of me.

The Man blinks and the fire is gone. His dripping clothes sag and cling coldly to his skin. The leaves jostle in the wind and cast a cool mist. No smoke. No ashes. A flick of lightning far off tells him the storm passed hours ago. But he knows that one day it will return to this hallowed place.

It must return because it isn’t finished.

He turns and appraises the dirt path that will take him down again into the valley, across the mile-long field and at last to the tent where his wife and sons still sleep. Could he not lie down beside them and wait for the morning? Could he not go back to tending sheep?

It isn’t finished. And neither is he.

Featured Photo credit:
pastoreid.com

Circumcision, you say? Why not go one further and cut your whole **** off!


animal with scissors

Note: this post assumes that most biblical translations are correct. That said, the KJV interprets Galatians 5:12 without specifying anything to be “cut off” except “themselves” (i.e., those who insist on circumcision). Either way, Paul’s choice of words here reflects the subject in question. For further reading on why Paul may or may not be telling his opponents to emasculate themselves, see this document and this article. If the translations that point to emasculation are wrong, then so is my post (at least from a literary standpoint). But maybe I can still contribute to the ongoing debate. Happy reading.

A Defense of Shocking Satire

“No dark sarcasm in the classroom!” – Pink Floyd

Within the community of believers (I shun the term “Christianity” because of its vast connotations), I’ve noticed a crippling and unwarranted dread of satire. Perhaps I’m imagining things, but I don’t think I am. Yes, we should detest Swift’s modest proposal of cannibalism just as we should detest C.S. Lewis’ “Saracen’s Head” on a pedestal. But we should also detest what these things deride. That is what satire is all about.

That being said, I once wrote a bit of chilling satire for one of my lit classes. That night, in a dream, the Holy Spirit rebuked me by dropping me in the disturbing scenario I had created in my poem. The next morning, I asked him whether he thought his manner of instruction wasn’t too extreme. “Isn’t yours?” he replied. Suffice it to say, I’ve never written anything like it since. So, I am aware of lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

But perhaps a central question remains: is shocking satire ever appropriate for those of us who aspire to whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? Well, let’s take a look at what Paul (the man I just paraphrased) has to say when he feels like being sarcastic:

“As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12, NIV). This is an apostle of Christ saying in no uncertain terms, “I wish those bunch of hypocrites would just go ahead and cut their Johnsons off!” Or if we’re going with the KJV translation, at the very least he is saying, “I wish they would cut themselves off from you just as they demand you cut away [fill in the blank] from your own flesh.”

Many people, Christians and non, are probably familiar with the above passage. I paraphrase the verse to show that 1) it could be a good example of sharp, grotesque satire in scripture and 2) an example of good satire, period. While I’ve read the passage many times, it dawned on me that Paul’s language would be seen as inappropriate if used today among Church-folk in the way that he used it then.

But is it inappropriate? Or is it exactly what needs to be said?

If you know me, you’ve probably guessed my opinion—the nasty image is not only proper but excellent. But if we want to find out why the verse’s grotesque flavor is justified given the circumstances of Paul’s letter, then we need to answer for ourselves two questions:

  1. What makes it satire?
  2. What makes it good (appropriate, effective, and memorable)?

Because of the way my brain works, I find it helpful to work from big ideas to smaller ones (and back to big again) when analyzing a text, so I’ll start by looking at the passage in a bit of context (or as much context as a non-historian can offer). Does Paul really wish that the men insisting on circumcision would cut off their private parts? Or is he using vivid, graphic imagery to make a point?

If Paul is anything like me (and I admit that’s a far-fetched assumption), then I’d say it’s probably a bit of both. 🙂

But really, what is the point of such a crude image? Let’s not kid ourselves: the image conveyed in Paul’s words is nothing you or I would ever want to see played out (though I can only speak for myself). Still, we can discern that Paul felt this specific imagery was necessary to convey just how frustrated he was with teachers working against the message he had fought for—a message I believe was at the heart of his ministry: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).

By the time Paul writes this letter, he has laid a lot of foundational work with the church in Galatia.[1] But now, other teachers have come along and are insisting on ancient ordinances that, to Paul, just don’t matter. Not only do these ordinances not matter, they are direct threats to the message of grace he tirelessly promotes.  If you disagree with this, I can only stress again the passage quoted above, “The only thing that counts…” Take this exegesis with all the salt you need.

Perhaps we can at least agree that Paul is frustrated with these teachers (“Hey, teachers! Leave those kids alone!”). Knowing this, let’s take a punch at the first question we began with: what makes the passage satirical? Most definitions of the word “satire” focus on elements like irony and sarcasm, but another element and one that applies here is exaggeration. Also, in order for satire to be satire, it has to be directed at a person or a group of people and it must be a form of written or verbal criticism. Let’s see if Paul’s wish fits the satirical model:

  1. The idea of “going the whole way” exaggerates circumcision itself.
  2. Paul exaggerates his annoyance with the circumcision debate by suggesting these teachers “cut themselves off” (and thus end the debate).
  3. He is calling these men out—rebuking them—for demanding holiness through outward practices.
  4. And since we can only hope Paul didn’t really want his adversaries to mutilate themselves any more than he really believed sorcery was the problem when he asked the Galatians who had “bewitched” them (it was Lord Voldemort!), we could assume he is also being sarcastic (even though he says “really”).

But it also turns out that Paul is being ironical. In his letters, purity and abstinence come up a few times. And while he insists that marriage is better than burning with passion, he also wishes we could be unmarried like him (note: I do not share his wish, but I do abstain from any guilt in not sharing it). 🙂

Now, here’s the irony as I see it: Paul knows that those who demand circumcision as a requirement of the Law and as a requirement for salvation are doing so because, among other things, they want to pursue holiness (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here). “But,” thinks Paul, “if they really want to be holy, why don’t they just turn themselves into eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom?” Of course, he knows they’ll never do this—they will go on procreating with their wives, as they should.

And so Paul draws attention to what Christ taught: holiness begins with the heart and its orientation first toward God and second toward humanity. The outward actions that manifest as a result of this orientation are true, holy actions. Hence, the weird but prophetic metaphor of a circumcised heart that runs throughout scripture, including the “old” Law: “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deut. 30:6).

Interesting that love toward God is the end-goal of this weird circumcision of the heart, just as faith expressing itself through love is the end-goal of Paul’s message to the Galatians. Really, any message that persuades people to deviate from the simplicity found in loving God and loving people deserves to be satirized.

But we still haven’t answered our question: is there ever a time for grotesque satire in literature? In film? In art, music, television? On Sunday morning from the pulpit? Well, I guess it all depends on the context. Let me put it this way: if I had invested my life and career in making sure people took hold of a single truth, only to find other teachers disrupting and confusing what I had taught—I’d tell those teachers to go do a lot more than castrate themselves. And since I’m creative, I’d probably do it in an underhanded way, like insert it into one of my YouTube videos or put it in a blog post and plaster it all over Facebook.

But then, I’m no saint. 😉

What’s the point here? Paul used crude satire in his language to express his frustration and to call out his opponents for their ignorant practices. What’s more, Paul’s frustration with people turning from the faith that expresses itself through love is the same frustration Yahweh exhibits throughout the Old Testament every time his people drift from his commandments. So, if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that shocking satire does have its place whenever people need a good jolt.

I’ve already mentioned the dream in which the Holy Spirit rebuked me—I needed to experience a bit of my own shocking satire so that I could be freed from a wrong way of thinking. Would it have been better if I had discerned correctly to begin with and had never needed the rebuke? Yes! And if the people of God had kept his commands, the Prophets would’ve been out of a job….

Like many of the hard-to-digest images in scripture and like many similar images in literature outside of the Bible, the image Paul uses is brazen, crude, and inappropriate for young audiences. And yet, it’s there, plain as the paper it’s printed on. But it’s more than just “there.”

  1. It is appropriate for its intended audience because, for Paul, the circumcision debate was supposed to have been settled at the Jerusalem council and by this point he was fed up with its resurgence.
  2. It is effective to stir up critical thought and point people toward what matters: faith expressing itself through love.
  3. It is memorable because it outlasts its context, stirs us up, and compels us to push the limits of any “religious” barriers that enclose our modes of discourse while reminding us to shed any prejudices we might harbor toward the grittier side of literary expression.

Above all, it is good-old-fashioned satire. And it’s in your Bible.

***

Something not quite right? Let me know: leave a polite, intelligent comment and I’ll refer readers to you.

[1] I think at least this much can be gleaned from the letter without digging too far into outside historical material

The Dark Knight Rises and Isaiah 1:17


The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight Rises and the Biblical Mandate of Isaiah 1:17.

While it is not a perfect movie, The Dark Knight Rises is for me the most positive example of the intersection of my faith with art. Certainly, the movie is not without its holes, such as the lack of explanation for how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) gets back into Gotham after his exile. While these issues deserve attention, I keep going back to the movie for its thematic message, which reflects my favorite scripture from Isaiah: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (1:17, NIV). This scripture, especially the part about the fatherless, is the basis of Bruce Wayne’s journey throughout the film.

The Dark Knight Rises draws somewhat from the French Revolution—the villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), takes over the city on the pretense of stripping power from the “corrupt” and giving it back to the people. But the backstory that precedes this pivotal revolution concerns the Wayne Foundation and its failure to support orphanages and teen refuge centers. As a result, teens with nowhere else to turn “descend” into Gotham’s sewers to find work. Instead, they find Bane who, in the absence of Batman, becomes their role model and liberator. Without the Wayne legacy, the lost boys of Gotham become the forces of destruction that will perpetuate the same cycle of murder that brought Bruce Wayne to his darkest hour.

The catalyst for Batman’s redemption (and Gotham’s) is a young hothead named John Blake, a.k.a., Robin. Just as fans of the character would expect, he goes straight to the Wayne mansion to shake Bruce Wayne from his stupor and to remind him of his calling. Interestingly, their conversation ends with Bruce asking, “Why did you say your ‘boys home’ used to be funded by the Wayne foundation?” (The Dark Knight Rises). The revelation that Wayne Enterprises no longer funds orphanages is the impetus for Batman to return to the streets. Few big-budget Hollywood films possess this kind of thematic undercurrent, and even fewer can be traced to scriptural mandates like Isaiah 1:17 and, similarly, James 1:27. Given the evidence, I do not see it as a theological stretch to trace The Dark Knight Rises to these mandates.

Without question, my faith-based perception of a story like The Dark Knight Rises is directly linked to the kinds of stories I hope to tell. The film ends with Bruce Wayne giving his home to Gotham’s orphans and also with the assurance that Robin will be nearby to watch over them. This is a far-cry from the dark, morbid turn some Gotham comics have taken in the past two decades, which insist that Bruce Wayne is as psychotic as the villains he struggles against. While these darker stories have their fans, I am convinced that the vast majority of film-goers want to see redemption on the screen—even for Gotham.

My story-telling drive compels me to descend into similar dark worlds of human crisis and to focus not on characters who succumb to the crisis, but who turn the tide in the midst of dark times, dark agendas, and dark principalities. And, just as a side-note, the idea of Batman as the Byronic hero doesn’t hold up in a story where the hero sacrifices himself and gives up everything he has to defend the oppressed and the fatherless. Quite the contrary, this is one of the most prominent and current examples of a biblical hero in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

A New Way of Being


“If you want to see what it looks like for God’s renewed people in Christ to be ‘royal,’ to be ‘rulers’ in the sense indicated by the vocation to be a ‘royal priesthood,’ don’t look at the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman emperors first became Christian. That raises questions and challenges at other levels, but to begin there would be to miss the point. Look, instead, at what the church was doing in the first two or three centuries, while being persecuted and harried by the authorities—and announcing to the whole world that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, was its rightful Lord. That is what it means to be ‘rulers’ in the sense we’re discussing here: to be agents of that King’s reign, the reign of the Prince of Peace, the one through whom tyranny itself (not to mention any individual tyrants) was overthrown with the destruction of its most vital weapon—namely, death—and the one through whom therefore was brought to birth a new world in which order and freedom at last meet.” – N. T. Wright, After You Believe

————

Some of you will like what I am about to say; many of you will not; a few of you may quit reading it halfway through. I realize that, in sharing my heart on these matters, it is possible that I am setting myself up to be pitied by some and ridiculed by others. Even so, I ask that you consider what follows with an inquiring mind. Do not take my word for anything I write, but seek the scriptures and Holy Spirit regarding the things I am putting forth. If Holy Spirit leads you to different conclusions, then I am eager to hear from you. I should add that I have not read the Bible cover to cover (as many people older and wiser than I am have done) and on that basis I question my capacity to make a case for anything written in it. Yet, as you can see, I do not question it so far as to stop writing….

In Christ we find a new way of being that challenges us to put to death the old human (Rom. 6) and to become bearers of His image. At present, I cannot see the need for any revelation, doctrine, or prophecy that does not point me toward this goal. Anything beyond this—beyond eagerly awaiting by faith and “through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (Gal. 5:5, NIV)—is irrelevant to those who wish to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. If the “only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6), then I get the feeling that I may have spent the past twenty years or more being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14). If this is not true for you, then I simply ask that you bear with me a while longer.

Through Christ, “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed” to each of us (Acts 13.38), but this extension of grace should not be misunderstood. While it provides us with a direct link to the Father, it does not allow us to justify our sin, mistreatment of others, verbal abuse, or manipulation (e.g., threatening someone if they act contrary to our wishes). Should we “go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, the promise and the purpose of being baptized into the life of Christ is that “we too may live a new life” (6:4). Put another way, in Christ we find a way of being that does not allow us to excuse behaviors that lead to sin, the most common being “jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20). Among these, I have seen fits of rage and selfish ambition justified under the pretense of respecting leadership. Do I plead guilty to this kind of behavior? Without question. But I hope I never again justify these behaviors in myself or in another. And if you justify these things because of all the good you or another person have done, then you oppose the renewing power of Christ and his holy spirit.

Now, you who are led by the Spirit and therefore not under the law (Gal. 5:18), consider first what it means to be led by the Spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Why are you not under the law? What does this mean? Surely it implies that legalism is old-fashioned and that it is much more fulfilling to be yourself, to do what comes naturally, and to justify wrong-doing because, hey, nobody’s perfect. Right?

Not quite. If we live in such a way as to produce the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control)[1], then the extrinsic authority of the law has now become the intrinsic nature of our human hearts (Jer. 31:33). Remember Peter’s advice: live as free people without using your freedom as an excuse for sin, but commit your lives in everything you do to serving Christ and each other (1 Pet. 2:16-17). It sounds wonderful and seems simple, but I believe it may need some explanation. So allow me, in my limited capacity, to point us toward what I believe is a good starting place for attaining this kind of freedom in Christ.

If we are not daily turning from behaviors that come naturally to us and instead choosing to adopt those of Christ’s indwelling Spirit,[2] then our minds are not being renewed and our claims to being Spirit-filled and Spirit-led are fruitless, as are our claims to both freedom and order.

So, what does being led by the Spirit really look like? To pick the most clear-cut image out of scripture, it looks like a son of man praying by night in the Garden of Gethsemane, renouncing his hopes and desires in favor of his Father’s perfect will.[3] Perhaps it is safe to say that being led by the Spirit means first adopting the self-denying character of Christ until our behavior becomes indistinguishable from his own. While this may sound simple, we need to understand in detail what being Christ-like really means for us here and now.

For those of us who desire to be like Christ, it might help if we understand a thing or two about his character. To sum it up (and so do it poor justice), the character of Christ is one of humility and servitude[4] tempered with a dash of zeal for the Father.[5] Looking at Saul of Tarsus, we might see that he was a zealot in the tradition of Elijah, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar before him.[6] But when he met the Son of God on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:5), that zeal was redirected toward a new way of being—the zealot for Yahweh’s kingdom must, according to the new covenant,[7] be a servant of Christ[8] and a living vessel for the “truth that leads to godliness” (Titus 1:1). In other words, our vision of reigning in the Kingdom of God means nothing if we do not embrace our role as servants of the firstborn Son and look to him as the “foundation already laid” (1 Cor. 3:11).

In my time, I have seen the idea of ruling in Christ’s kingdom misunderstood on three different fronts: 1) there are people who believe their success and prosperity to be the main demonstrations of their kingdom authority; 2) these same people often subscribe to a harmful misconception of son-ship by submitting to a spiritual father[9] or to an apostle as their primary source of revelation (please note my emphasis), which in effect has caused some to either turn away from the “champion who initiates and perfects” their faith (Heb. 12:2, NLT) or to relegate him to a second-tier position in their lives;[10] and 3) some believe it is the church’s present responsibility to judge the world rather than to await Christ’s judgment, which is set for an appointed time (Acts 17:31). This last idea is especially dangerous, as it fills people with a false sense of omniscience while causing them to reach toward the kind of power that Christ attained only after he defeated the one who held the power of death (Heb. 2:14). Truly, if we do have this kind of power (thus implying that we are as perfect as Christ rather than being made perfect through Him[11]), then why would we ever need a high priest who “always lives to intercede” for us? (Heb. 7:25). If you are as qualified to judge as you think you are, then it stands to reason that you no longer need Christ to intercede on your behalf.

Referring to the three issues listed above, the first usually shows up among people who become so enamored with the idea of “ruling and reigning” that they are oblivious to the cost that comes with this kind of power (e.g., crucifixion).[12] As to the second issue, I find that it sometimes produces unadulterated devotion to a single church leader at the expense of ostracizing those who do not share this devotion (even though they are followers of Christ). At its core, this turning away from fellow believers in the name of “loyalty” is nothing more than idolatry and is in direct conflict with Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians when he says, “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

Finally, if any question remains as to how we should function as agents of Christ’s authority and power, Paul at least clarifies what we are not to do: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” (4:4-5). I do not know how to make this scripture any clearer than it already is; it speaks for itself without any help from me. If Paul is correct (and if I am not taking his words out of context), then we should judge nothing until the Lord comes.[13] So, where exactly does that leave us?

Despite what some may think, I am not suggesting that we should all just lead ourselves, picking and choosing how we want to submit to authority. Rather, I am pointing us toward what I think could be a more perfect plan to bind us together in a spirit of faithfulness and so protect us from the abuse of power. Among people who are preparing for the kingdom of heaven, the reality of what unity and faithfulness should look like is summed up in Philippians 2:

“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (2:1-4)

Paul has just defined kingdom order. As we know, factions arise among us when our convictions drift so far apart that they become irreconcilable. The question remains: why are our convictions diverging in the first place? Perhaps multiple reasons exist, but I want to suggest the possibility that either you or I (or both of us) have taken our eyes off of Christ.[14] In Philippians 2:1-4, the first factor in the equation is unity with Christ. This is the essential element because it is only when we are united in Christ that our convictions become identical. Being united in Christ means understanding his nature and character, and working with all of our hearts to emulate that character by way of a vital gift from heaven—the Holy Spirit, who is our living witness of the resurrected Son and the assurance of everlasting life.[15] Once we are united with Christ by his Spirit, the other components begin to lock into place: we become like-minded, we have the same love (and convictions), we unite in spirit and purpose (we share a vision that is universal because it is the vision of Christ rather than the vision of a single church or individual), and we begin to relate to one another in a spirit of humility. As easy as this last part sounds, it is often the most difficult to grasp. Humility is not second nature to me; I hope it is to you.

Based on the previous scripture, then, the key to unity is humility. Unfortunately, many believers think of unity as something inorganic that must be imposed by the hierarchy lined out in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. However, what Paul may be saying in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is that Yahshua appointed the apostles—as messengers of the good news and as prototypes for the new way of being—before he appointed anyone else in the church. Put simply, they came first in a chronological sequence and were entrusted with one task: to cultivate a body wherein the working “parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25).[16] Also, Ephesians 4:11 is often preached to justify the five-fold ministry (and perhaps rightly so) while the ultimate purpose of this order is overlooked: “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (4:12).

Is Paul suggesting that the means lead to an end or, more specifically, to the realization of a meaningful hope that transcends all other agendas? I think so. If the ministry is not building up believers in the knowledge of the Son of God—that is, if we are not being led toward a revelation of who Christ is and how we are to reflect him to the world—then we are wasting our time as unfaithful stewards of the gospel. Further, if equilibrium in the body of Christ is not evident, then the body-parts are not functioning according to Yahweh’s plan. So, how do we become this fully-functional body of Christ? Read 1 Corinthians 13, and then get back to me.

As for the good news, it is simply this: that Yahweh, God of all creation, has made a new covenant with humanity through the resurrection of His son, who having ascended into heaven has left us His indwelling Spirit, who is—in us, through us, and for us—the promise of life eternal and the assurance that we will live, in bodily form,[17] with the true King of heaven and earth. Any message or gospel that deviates from this essential truth is not the message of the kingdom.[18] Moreover, any ministry that does not concern itself with winning people to Christ does not share in the interests of heaven, for “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 15:7). I do not care how many people I get to come to my church, and I hope I am not among those who care how many people leave my church to go somewhere else—if I can lead people to a revelation of who Yahshua (Jesus) is and what this new way of being means for them, then I will have fulfilled my God-given mandate as a follower of the firstborn Son.

~ Thank you for reading, and may you be blessed as you choose to walk in the love of Christ. ~

————

Works Cited

Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Print.


[1] See Galatians 5:22-23.

[2] Galatians 5 and Romans 6 are two great signposts for this; I reference them because they are the ones with which I am most familiar.

[3] See Luke 22:42.

[4] See Philippians 2:6-11.

[5] See John 2:17.

[6] See Numbers 25, 1 Kings 18:40, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:4-6, and  N. T. Wright’s “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17)”.

[7] The new covenant is summed up nicely in Jeremiah 31:33-34 and in John 3:16.

[8] See Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 3:5, and 4:1.

[9] This is remarkable to me when I consider John 20:17, where Yahshua (Jesus) refers to his disciples not as sons but as brothers. See also Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:1-7.

[10] Note that I am not discrediting the concept of spiritual fathers and sons, nor am I suggesting that we should not submit our lives to the instruction of people who exceed our knowledge in the faith. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, Paul writes, “for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel,” and in verse 17 he calls Timothy his son. Also, in 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul refers to Timothy as his “true son in the faith”.

[11] See Philippians 3:12 and Colossians 1:28.

[12] See Matthew 20:20-24.

[13] In John’s Gospel, Yahshua says, “I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me” (8:15-16). Even though he is qualified to judge (because he is the only one who can stand with the Father), he instead chooses to wait because the time for judgment has not yet come.

[14] See Hebrews 12:2.

[15] See John 14:15-21 and Ephesians 1:13-14.

[16] If you want a summary of what the early apostles were like, what they endured, and what their responsibilities entailed, then refer to 1 Corinthians 3 and 4. Primarily, they are the servants of Christ through whom we come to believe (1 Cor. 3:5).

[17] See 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.

[18] See Galatians 1:6-7, 1 John 2:22-29, 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 2:8, and Titus 1:2. See also “Gnosticism” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E-J, Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993. 404-406. Print.

The Brazen Bull


Phase one usually doesn’t harm a soul. It’s the thinking phase, the inceptive hovering over the face of black waters. Nothing is spoken and no promises are made—there is no law and no one to break it, no light and thus no understanding of darkness. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. A voice says “light be.” Suddenly a veil splits from top to bottom and it is this perpetual tearing of the immaterial that carves its way toward the farthest reach of eternity. This is phase two, the vocalizing of the concept that causes a new world to envelop the old. If this stage is initiated, the one in charge is responsible for making sure that the original idea is sound and, most importantly, something that produces life.

If human beings engender a concept to produce life, they rarely do it on purpose. One can speculate whether they would be capable of perpetuating themselves were it not for the pleasure-seeking impulse that guides them instinctively toward sex. In and of themselves, humans rarely approach phase one with the kind of purity attributable to One; let us call him the “First.”

Phase three orders the “produce” of phase two so as to create a life-perpetuating cycle. With the First it was probably an age-long process of assigning which organisms would become fish, land-crawlers, flyers, beasts of prey and burrowing creatures. To achieve his end, he placed them in a context which we would call “time” and then set them to work. By all accounts, he saw that this was good.

Then the First creates men and women, gives them a piece of himself, and stands by as they excommunicate him from the order of things. In this new order, human beings take it upon themselves to carry out the three-phase process of thought, speech, and action. This is how all things move toward death.

 * * *

I am hidden in a crowd of Israelites and Canaanites. That is, until they bow to a statue with the head of a bull, its jewel-encrusted arms outstretched and sloping back toward a hollow, bulging abdomen from which tongues of flame curl like whiplashes and lick the dry night air. Reluctant to bow, I retreat behind a nearby boulder and, keeping close to its shadow, peer out at the ranks of worshipers. The chalky feel of the rock reminds me that I am both here and now, and that the fire churning in the statue’s belly is hardly the stuff of dreams.

Drums boom and trumpets sound as a robed, priestly man ascends three stone steps toward a great plinth set before the towering bull. The priest or king carries what looks like a naked baby—I see something like plump feet kicking out at nothing, while stubby-fingered hands grope for the softness of a mother’s skin only to clench at a thistly beard or a piece of linen covering a flat, foreign chest.

A woman kneels at the steps and buries her face in her arms, and I watch her shoulders heave and her body quiver. The drums thunder to drown out the baby’s deafening screams; the people begin to make a sound as of wind among treetops. The robed man holds the baby aloft before the bull’s flat nose. Above the nose rests a pair of impassive eyes, and I remember with a tinge of irony that some artisan-slave with a liberal ingenuity must have carved them that way. At first I wonder if the man holding the baby is Solomon or Ahaz, but that question slips from me just as the baby slips from the bull’s upraised palms and rolls down the bronze arms toward the belly of fire.

The flames spit, crackle, and glow. The bull smiles in the play of light and shadow. In spite of trumpets and drums and whirring voices I hear the child’s scream as if it were echoing the suppressed cry of rage that splits my heart.

And then I see it: this is phase three of human initiative, ordered and set by the precedence of thought and speech. “Oh God in heaven,” I cry within myself, “how did it come to this?” But I already know the answer. It’s because phase one did not hurt anybody, and phase two was just freedom of speech in all its explorative beauty. And after much critical thinking and a series of discussions, someone decided that it would be in the people’s best interest to burn babies alive, while the command “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek” was labeled as an antiquated piece of advice—take it or leave it.

I turn away as the priest lifts another child toward the glowing altar.

* * *

When I wake from it, I’m still in the car. Driving of all things. The last thing I remember is pulling out of Jake’s driveway, and then something started talking to me about phases. We’re almost to my place now. He’s in the passenger seat, carrying on a serious discussion as if I’ve been listening the whole time. “The problem,” he says, “is that we can’t really determine when life begins. And if we try to, we may as well be playing god. Know what I mean?”

I realize that he has come to the end of his point and that it’s time for me to respond.

“No,” I say. “I don’t.”

I can still see the brazen bull, but his lifeless eyes don’t see me.

“You don’t?” He folds his eyebrows at me. “But I’ve just explained it.”

“Why are we talking about this?” I ask.

“Because you brought it up,” he says.

“Did I?” I turn onto the road that dead-ends at my place.

“Yeah. You said it was a simple matter of right and wrong, life and death. So I was explaining how it’s much more complicated than that. Were you even listening?”

I pull into my driveway and turn off the ignition. We sit for I don’t know how long, both of us waiting for me to say something. This is phase two, I realize. We’re making ourselves feel better by talking about it and talking about it until we renounce anything resembling a concrete resolution.

Sitting in the quietude of his impatient stare, I don’t have to try very hard to hear the thundering drums and the blasting trumpets. And to see the bright, blazing stomach with its tongues of flame coiling around a naked baby feels like really seeing for a change. Then, it comes to me as if from somewhere else—I believe the First has given it to me. I see Eve as she rationalizes eating the fruit and Adam as he rationalizes sharing it. I see Cain as he justifies his anger toward his brother. I see human history as the complicating of simple matters, and I know with whom it began: a garden snake speaks of wisdom and the way to know both good and evil.

“Well,” he says, “were you listening or not?”

I speak without looking at him. “Yes,” I say. “I heard every word.”

Lineage


             I awoke as if I had been summoned.

            A pile of glowing embers that only made the darkness more pronounced was all that remained of our fire. I heard someone say once that darkness had palpability, a thickness, that it wasn’t just an absence of light—can’t remember who said it. I never believed it.

Sat up and listened. Wondered why the darkness and the cold reminded me of what somebody said about something I didn’t believe, whose name I couldn’t even remember. Absence is its own presence and all that nonsense. Doesn’t feel like nonsense now, I thought. I wanted to laugh, only it seemed a sacrilege. Didn’t believe in sacrilege either, but night can make you renounce old doctrines and become a proselyte to just about any kind of craziness in the time it takes for a dying fire to draw the cold to it. I told myself that I didn’t laugh because the cave would just laugh back and wake Noelle.

I slithered from my blankets and crawled close to where she was—my hand bumped her, but she didn’t budge. Her breathing, faint and hollow as a ghost, was the sleeping kind; heat from her nostrils bristled the tiny hairs on my knuckles. Feeling her breath, I remembered what I had always known, that more than one kind of light exists. Sometimes it’s the light you feel but can’t see.

That’s what hope is, I thought. Faith and all that goodness Mom and Dad used to talk about before putting us to bed. All of it was light felt and not seen. That was why we were hiding in a cave, to protect the true light in a world of reversing polarities. What that man said, maybe he thought it sounded clever. I don’t know. Maybe he really believed in the palpability of nothing. The rest of the world seems to believe it—they worship it now.

Got up and walked to where the cave opened to the escarpment leading down toward corkwood and canarium trees. The full moon cast its light through the trembling jungle leaves and reached toward the cave’s mouth, but I didn’t let it touch me. Been teaching myself how to think fast and move slow; seems the best way to protect yourself in a world where people are doing just the opposite. God knows I wanted to bathe in that light, but I kept close to the shadows, listened and watched. You learn to listen and watch for a good minute or two.

“Addy,” I heard her whisper. Her cold hand on my dangling wrist.

“Go back to sleep,” I said. Wind whispered in the jungle.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Another dream?”

I could feel her nodding “yes” behind me. Didn’t have to look anymore. More than one way to see. More than one kind of light.

“It was Mom and Dad,” she whispered.

I heard an anomalous crunch of leaves and almost shushed her, but thought better of it. It was an animal’s sound—the other kind would never announce themselves that way. With them it was always what you didn’t hear, what you didn’t see. I knelt down and, taking her by the hand, drew her back into the greater shadow.

“What did they tell you?” I asked.

“Mom didn’t say anything,” she said. “Dad just said tell you ‘Genesis 12:1’. I asked him what he meant and he said ‘wake up now’. After that, they were gone.” She started to cry and so I held her close.

“Don’t cry, Noelle. I know what he meant.”

She looked up at me. “You do? I never know what he means.”

I smiled. “Gather up our things as quietly as you can,” I whispered. “I’ll put out the fire.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Yes,” I said. “Dad wants us to and so we’ll make for the mountains. Tonight.”

I nudged her off and followed her. Covered the embers with rocks and dirt while she rolled up the blankets and stuffed them into our packs. Dad and I had agreed on Genesis 12:1 well before the onset of things. Get out of your country. Noelle was special—the other kind couldn’t listen in on her dreams the way they could mine. Mom and Dad knew that. I seldom dreamed anymore; if I sensed a dream coming, I would wake up on instinct.

“Ready,” she said. She handed me my pack and donned hers. I looked her over and remembered I would kill or die or both if it meant protecting her.

“Me too,” I whispered. “Stay close. We’ll keep to the shadows.”

From the escarpment, we began climbing the layered ascent above the cave. When we had climbed for about an hour, I looked down through the wiry branches at the jungle floor touched by strands of a falling moon. Shapes of men, like bats fluttering, were darting between the rocks and trees.

“What is it?” she asked.

I turned away. “Nothing. Keep climbing.”

We climbed until dawn.

* * *

            When Noelle was three and I was nine, we drove up to the farm to visit Granddaddy and Grammy. Four hundred acres of arable land surrounded by a forest of pine and evergreen. The snow had fallen heavy on the earth, so thick that I could climb in through the kitchen window without having to jump for the sill. Dad had said it was more because I had grown, but I liked the idea that the snow had somehow raised me up, as if it were on my side.

One night Dad woke me up, told me to put my warm clothes and boots on and to meet him outside. I asked him what was wrong and he said nothing yet, but that I should hurry and make certain I layered up. Passing through the foyer on the way down, I saw Mom in the kitchen but she didn’t look at me. She sat holding a mug of coffee, staring down past its rim the way she always did when she was searching somewhere inside herself.

“Hurry,” she said. “Don’t keep your dad waiting.”

In her cold reclusion I sensed something inevitable—that I had been awakened in the night because I was about to be born and so I needed to be present for it. For a moment I watched her without saying anything, as though to preserve her as an icon in the shrine of my heart. I knew that I would never see her with the same eyes again. In my first birth she had played the most active part, the lead role even. But in the birth that awaited me out there in the winter night she could have no part.

When I stepped outside, I closed the door gently behind me and stared at my father standing at the edge of the steps that led down from the porch. He did not look at me either. I wondered if he even could.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded. He made me follow him and I could tell we were heading toward the barn. As he walked, he plowed a gulley through the snow and I followed in it as if it were a lighted path carving its way through a crowd of night.

“Why are we out here?” I asked him.

“That question can’t be answered in the time it takes from the porch to the barn,” he said.

Then he glanced back at me or past me, I’m not sure which. When he saw that I was lagging, he told me to speed up. His tone was calm but I could hear in it a chill that had its roots somewhere in the core of his heart, sliding its branches into his veins and spreading a deep freeze through him. And then I knew—he was afraid. My father. A man marked by an incapacity for fear, known and respected for it. That realization of my father’s humanity was the first rush of blood and water thrusting me toward a new advent.

* * *

            Noelle was asleep next to me while I leaned against a tree, watching the slope we had climbed that morning. We were hidden behind a thin veil of leafy bushes and projecting rocks, but I could still see the treetops in the forest below. The sun was warm and I could tell the day was going to get hotter the higher we climbed. I didn’t like the idea of stopping so soon but she was tumbling in her steps, slipping on beds of loose pebbles. If we didn’t rest, I would either have to carry her or let her sink face-first into the black dirt. So far from their nearest enclave, the other kind would be reluctant to travel by day.

At least, that was my hope.

From my coat pocket I drew my short knife with its fat blade and its polished horn handle. Held it in my open palm, watching the sunlight burn through the glassy edge, casting a rainbow on the tip of my boot. I had only used it to kill small animals for food; Dad had taught me how to kill a rabbit and then skin it so as to preserve the meat. I always told Noelle to hide and look the other way during those times but I couldn’t stop her from watching if she wanted to see. The first time she saw me kill an animal, she refused to eat it. It took an hour to convince her that we either ate or we starved. That had been right after we left the village—two weeks ago. Since then, life in the wild had thinned her out.

Still, I didn’t know how much longer I could keep up feeding the two of us while we ran for our lives. We had to find help. If nothing else, I had to get Noelle someplace safe. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore, not like I used to anyway. It wasn’t just me they were after—if they got me without Noelle they had nothing; they’d have to kill me. But if they got her… if they got her I’d do anything they wanted.

“Addy…” Her voice came up from some buried place.

“Yeah?”

Birds fluttered in the branches overhead; an ant was crawling across my knee and I flicked it away with the knife.

“How much longer do we have to climb?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Until we find Uriel, I suppose. He lives somewhere near the summit.”

“How do you know?”

“That’s what the doctor told us back at the village, remember?”

“What doctor?”

“The tall man with the big hands,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know he was a doctor.”

“The village doctor. Kofi.”

“Did you believe him?”

Did I believe him? What other choice was there but to believe him? Either I believed him or I threw away everything Mom and Dad had fought for… were still fighting for. They had sent us to the other side of the world because of what they believed, and so far they had been right about most things. They had been right about Kofi; it stood to reason that Kofi was right about Uriel.

“Of course,” I told her. “That’s why we’re out here.”

“The other kind are close, aren’t they?”

No reason to lie to her. Dad always told me to keep as much as I could from her but to answer her questions truthfully. She was young but she wasn’t a simpleton.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why we can’t rest for much longer.”

For a few minutes we sat and listened to the life of the mountain and the forest. The day was deceptive in its peacefulness, just as the night had been.

“Addy,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“What if Uriel doesn’t exist?”

I sat quietly for several lingering moments, waiting for an answer to come. It came with a renewed burst of sunlight as a cloud passed.

“Then God will send someone else to help us,” I said, wondering if I believed it. Hell, I had to tell her something.

As we returned to the slow labor of the hike, I kept sensing movement to my left. When I  glanced in that direction, there was nothing. We would go on for a while and then I would sense it again, like an extra shadow moving apart from our own, parallel to our ascent but keeping itself at a distance. Of course, when I looked for it again, I didn’t see anything except a bird hopping in the brush. I don’t know if it was really anything; it didn’t feel much like the other kind. I can’t really describe what it felt like—all I know is it was with us for a good ways.

* * *

When we came to the barn, he had to shove his full weight against the door to open it. The door squealed on it hinges and skidded against the concrete floor, sounding like fingernails on a chalkboard. The doorway loomed like a rectangular maw of shadow; the air within felt colder than outside and as Dad stepped over the threshold he was half enveloped by darkness. From the inside wall, he grabbed an electric lantern and, switching it on, was ignited in a soft glow that made me suddenly miss the warmth of my bed. I thought about turning around and running back to the house.

“Hurry up,” he said, beckoning me inside. I stepped across and thought of Julius Caesar. Except I had no army.

I was startled to see the blackened shape of a man sitting on a workman’s stool at the far end of the barn, barely visible in the dim light of Dad’s lantern. He sat beside Granddaddy’s covered-up 1959 Chrysler Imperial. As we got closer to him and the light revealed some of his features, I got the sense that he was out of place beside that American relic, not because it was American but because it was of time and space. When the light hit him full on, I saw his face clearly, and I could’ve sworn then that he was both the youngest and oldest man I had ever seen—he didn’t fit beside the car because he didn’t fit anywhere.

“Addy,” he said, looking me in the eye.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He nodded, as if assessing my response. Then he looked up at my father. “Leave the lantern,” he said. “You can wait outside if you like but I would suggest going indoors where it’s warm.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Dad said. He looked down at me and started to say something, but a look from the man made him swallow an empty breath instead. He nodded at the man and then walked back to the other side of the barn. The door cracked shut and suddenly I realized I had been left alone in the bone-freezing cold with a man I didn’t know.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I said.

“I know you don’t but I have to ask,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“In case you did know who I was,” he said, smiling.

“How would I know you?”

His smile faded. “You would only know me if you weren’t yourself.”

I started to say something but he lifted a gloved hand to quiet me. He wore a heavy wool coat that covered his knees almost to the rims of his black boots. His hair was long and gray and he had matching stubble on his chin and cheeks. His eyes were black in the lantern’s red light.

“I don’t have time to answer questions,” he said. “Rather, I’ve come to ask you a few myself.”

“All right,” I said, a little reluctantly.

He sat up and started to lean back even though there was nothing to lean on; he was taller than I had originally guessed.

“Let’s start with a hypothetical question,” he said. “You know what hypothetical means, right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, and my voice croaked from the cold.

“Good,” he said. “Now, let’s begin. You live a very long time, so long that you don’t know how old you are anymore—we’ll just say you’re half a billion years old. You keep getting stronger but the earth is dying and its people are diminishing. The sun grows dim and the planet is getting colder. Then, you realize it is within your power to destroy everything and attempt to create a new world, but you still have a choice: you can let the earth and its people fade, or you can put it all to an abrupt end and try to start something new.”

I was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Can I do both?”

He shook his head. “You must choose between them. Also, remember that there is great risk in destroying the old world, because there is no guarantee that a new world will be created. Only the potential exists. Still, the old world is dying and another opportunity to create a new one may never come again. Knowing that, what choice do you make?”

I started to answer what I thought to be correct: that it wasn’t my responsibility to make that kind of decision, that it was not within my power—only something in my insides locked up when I tried to say it. I went rigid, felt a sudden upwelling of terror without knowing what I feared. He saw the hesitation and lunged forward. In less than a second he held me in an iron vise with his right forearm, and then I felt something cold prick the skin of my exposed neck.

“If you’re one of them,” he said. “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Answer the question.”

“It’s not a question,” I rasped.

“What?” His grip loosened a hair’s breadth.

“It isn’t a question,” I said. “It’s something I’ve already done.”

“Explain,” he said.

“A dream I had three nights ago,” I said. “In the dream, I destroyed everything. I had a choice, like you said. I couldn’t let things go on as they were. I didn’t want to tell you because… because it scared me that you knew.”

In the moment, I was shocked by my own explicit honesty. I had never spoken with such clarity.

I heard him let out a heavy breath; his arm fell away and I rushed forward about six paces when something caught me. I looked up at a man of similar build and with a face that carried the same aura as the other man but unique in its own right. My captor gently turned me around to face the other, who was back on the stool and smiling with a kind of warmth that seemed out of character for a man who had just threatened death. Out of the corners of both eyes, I saw two more men appear, one to the left and another to the right.

“These are my brothers in arms,” the gray-haired man said, indicating the men who had just appeared. Then he held aloft a shining, phosphorescent blade—I was startled by how sharp it seemed.

“Are you going to kill me now?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, Addy,” he said. “I never held the blade to you. I only let the crest of the hilt touch your skin.”

“Why?”

“The simplest explanation? To test how you respond to fear,” he said. “I had no intention of killing you, but the threat was necessary.”

“But you said you wouldn’t hesitate.”

“I said I wouldn’t hesitate to kill you if you were one of them,” he said. “I already guessed that you weren’t. But then you hesitated to speak the truth. Why?”

“I already told you,” I said. “I was afraid.”

“Afraid because we knew about your dream?”

“Yeah,” I said, forgetting the sir. “That among other things.”

He smiled again. “The dream is proof of your humanity,” he said. “I sent you that dream to prove that you weren’t one of them.”

“But you said you already knew I wasn’t.”

For the present, I overlooked the revelation that he had sent the dream, whatever that meant. I didn’t understand it but I didn’t doubt him either—in some way, it made sense if only at a subconscious level.

“Yes,” he said. “I did know.”

“Then why go through all of that?” I asked.

His face grew solemn. “Because you need to know for yourself that you are not, nor will you ever be, one of the other kind. Do you know about them?”

“Dad has told me some things,” I said. By some things I meant very little, but I did not feel compelled to explain that to him. He seemed to know enough without me telling him anything.

“Did you know that they are incapable of dreaming?”

I stared at him. “No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”

“They have proven more than capable of spying on the dreams of human beings,” he said, “but that is where their powers stop. Have you ever felt that someone or something in one of your dreams was both an outsider and a threat?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Lots of times. I always try to wake up.”

“Good habit,” he said.“The dream you had about the earth is one we sent to numerous individuals, but you are the only one who made the choice to risk everything. That makes you a very important person. And, while it tells us what we need to know about you, it also means you can never safely dream again.”

Never dream… never again. “Why?” I asked.

“Because the other kind were present in your dream too, if only as silent listeners,” he said. “And now they know who you are, just as we do.”

“And who am I exactly?”

He laughed softly. “Someone who might make a difference.”

* * *

            In a narrow cleft of rock we huddled, while from behind a thick bush of prickly needles I peered down at a silver stream, scanning the stony riverbank from the high ground to where it bended toward the lower valley. No one in sight but that never meant much. I listened and watched for a good five minutes if not longer. Below us, the sun was flooding the rocky slope with light and heat. There’d be nowhere to hide when I came out from our meager covering, but we needed water.

“All right,” I whispered. “I’m going down. You can watch me from here. Just keep low. Okay?”

She nodded. “Just hurry.”

Hurry. Everybody was always asking me to hurry. Just like I was always praying to God to hurry. Please help us and hurry and don’t let us get caught and hurry and send someone to help us and please, please hurry.

I climbed down from our lookout and ran with stunted strides toward the stream bank, skidding on moist pebbles as I neared the water’s edge.  A series of short, grassy shelves carried the stream into the valley like an uneven stair, flowing in little dips and falls that hummed with the surge of water. Trees were thicker on the opposite bank. I hunched down with my boots touching the stream.

Filling the first canteen, I scanned the dark network of leafy branches and low-hanging limbs as they swayed between narrow bands of sunlight and shade. And then I felt the presence, a noiseless shadow hovering toward me, and at the same time I heard Noelle scream.

The knife was out of its sheath and glistening in my right palm even as I turned toward the presence at my left. I saw the tall shape of the hooded man, the markings on the ashen face, the eyes gleaming like tiny shards of ice in the stream’s reflected sunlight—more light than they were used to and yet this one endured it.

In that split-second, I was aware of more than his proximity, of more than the long, outthrust needle between the knuckles of his left hand. How many were with him? They had heard Noelle scream; how long before they got to her? How many seconds did I have before the one approaching at my back would strike? If there was one in front then there was one behind. Count them when they’re dead.

The blade did its work quickly—the hilt left my palm and the knifepoint struck the enemy in the heart. Stained with his blood, the weapon was in my palm again in almost the same instant and I hadn’t even moved. I did not see him collapse before I felt the force of the blade leading me, and so I turned with it, all the way around toward the valley-side of the stream. But I was too late.

A shock of ice coursed through my arm as the whip struck, curling around my wrist and tightening like a boa constrictor. The knife twirled in the air as it spun loose from my hand, its guiding power lost to me now. It landed somewhere in the bed of long grass as my enemy tackled and drove me backward into a rush of cold water that swelled above my ears. He held me there while drawing something from his cloak, and then I saw the needle flash as it caught the sun.

God, not here. Not now.

His weight lifted from me as though it had been torn away. A yellow blur leaped across my vision and displaced the enemy’s black shape. I lifted my head in time to hear a wild animal’s roar followed by a crunching sound, like bones snapping. After that it was just the trickling of the stream, the slight hum of the miniature waterfalls.

Blood in the water but it wasn’t mine.

I saw the black-robed body lying face up against the opposite bank—a tawny lioness stood over him and stared at me, licking her teeth. This was the Africa I had been told about but had not yet seen, at least not up close. She stared at me as if waiting for me to thank her, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. And then I thought of Noelle. Had they gotten her? Why wasn’t she calling out to me?

“You all right, kid?” A man’s voice from my right.

His low-cut boots, splashing through the slow current, seemed heavy enough to make the stream rise up and flood the bank. I looked up at his face: young and yet old. His blonde hair, suffused beneath a trekker’s hat, would turn white depending on how the sun hit it. I couldn’t tell what color his eyes were in the shade of his hat. Across his chest he carried what looked like an M-16 assault rifle. I didn’t say anything, but kept looking between him and the lioness.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She won’t eat you.”

I stared at the rifle, at his finger resting near the trigger.

“And I’m not going to shoot you, either,” he said.

“Where’s my sister?” I said, but he just looked at me.

I jumped up and ran back toward the slope, calling Noelle’s name as loud as I could and not caring if the other kind were still around to hear it. She didn’t answer. When I got to our hiding spot, I found her pack.

Just her pack. No footprints, no sign of struggle. I remembered her scream. She had screamed only once. From behind, I sensed the man nearing and whirled on him as if he, like the other kind, had come with an ungodly purpose.

“Where is she?” I demanded.

He didn’t say a word, but just stared at me the way he had before. Like he didn’t know anything… or like he knew something I didn’t.

* * *

            That night on the farm, he told and showed me lots of things I can’t talk about. At least I can’t talk about them yet. He sent one of his men to bring my father inside and then had us stand together. Dad didn’t say anything, but waited like he knew all the rules; what you did and didn’t do. That was when the gray-haired man gave me the knife. As I held it in my open palm, it glowed with a pale, distant light… almost as if it were a mirror reflecting the farthest stretch of the known universe.

“Never let another man wield it while you possess it,” the man said. “Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “But what would happen—”

“What would happen is meaningless so long as you keep your word.”

I only nodded.

Seeing my withdrawn look, he added: “It will not bend to an evil will. Rather, it will destroy itself before it lets the will of darkness command it. That’s the way I designed it. Let it guide you only in times of need—otherwise, keep it hidden and don’t use it.”

I nodded. “I won’t use it. I hope I never have to.”

He smiled. “We all hope that, Addy. Though no man hopes for it more than your father.” He and Dad exchanged knowing glances. “Still, I feel better leaving you well-equipped,” he added.

I had been staring at the knife, at its inexplicable phosphorescence, when I was stricken by the weight of his words. He was leaving. Why did that matter to me? I barely knew him… and a few minutes ago he had threatened to kill me, or pretended to threaten I guess.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“My work does not allow me to put down roots, or to rest my limbs for very long,” he said, rising. The drape of his cloak hung below his knees. “I’ve already spent more time with you than I ought to have.” He looked at my father and said, “The rest of the work lies with you now.”

“I’ll teach him everything I can,” Dad said.

The gray-haired man only nodded. He gave a subtle glance to his men, and they moved to the back door of the barn—the one that faced the nearest vanguard of trees that led nowhere but deeper into a wild forest. One by one they vanished into the outer dark, while the winter chill howled at us from the open door. Following his brothers, the gray haired man was about to cross the threshold when I called to him.

“Wait,” I said. He stopped and turned his head. Standing in front of the covered car, he waited for me to speak.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled. “Just a half-billion year old man abiding the space between you and everything else,” he said. “My name is Michael, or at least that’s what they call me in your world. So long, Addy.” He gave a little two-fingered salute and then stepped outside.

Compelled by some unnamable force, I sprinted after him. Dad just stood where he was like he knew what to expect; I could feel him watching me. When I got to the door, I stared out at the flat, white plain of snow as it stretched toward the forest. In the cloud-covered darkness, I could just make out the black outline of the trees.

Not a man in sight. There weren’t even tracks in the snow.

* * *

“Addy…” Her voice, unmistakable.

She came up from under a thick row of bushes, holding the knife. Still streaked with blood, it beamed a full spectrum of colors in the hot, midday light.

“I went down to help you,” she said. “But then the man with the lion came, and so I hid again.” She looked up at the stranger, and then at me. I found it curious that she seemed less suspicious of him than I was; it comforted me a little. She handed me the knife and I started to wipe the blood off on my shirt.

The man thrust his hand toward me as if I were about to step from a ledge. “No,” he said. “For God’s sake don’t do that. You’ll be lit up like a bonfire on a midnight plain.”

“What?” I looked at him with questioning eyes. Noelle crouched under the net of leaves, poised to dive back into her newfound hiding place at the first sign of danger.

“The blood,” he said. “They can smell their own blood better than they can smell yours. Come, we’ll wash it off in the stream. We need to be quick though. More of them are headed this way.” He started back down the slope.

I looked at Noelle. “What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think he’s Uriel,” she whispered.

I took her hand in mine and we followed him to the stream. When we got to the bank, I saw the lioness hovering over the water, drinking. She looked up at me, and then at Noelle; just as before, I was startled by the lucidity of her gaze. More than this, I discovered that I knew her by her presence more than by her look. She was the presence I had felt walking with us earlier that morning, during our ascent up the first slope.

“Let me see the knife,” the man said. The rifle was strapped across his back, while his hat hung by a thin, leather cord around his neck. He scooped water into his cupped palm and then rubbed it through his hair. The water ran down his forehead and along the curve of his narrow cheeks like tears.

“I was told never to let another man handle it,” I said.

He smiled. “Michael gives explicit instructions. But I’ve never heard of him giving away one of his weapons, least of all to a scrawny kid. You must be a very important person. You said your name was Addy?”

“I didn’t say what my name was,” I said.

He laughed. “No, you didn’t. But she did.” He pointed to Noelle with his eyes. “My name is Uriel, in case you hadn’t already guessed. I was told to expect you.”

“I told you,” Noelle said, looking up at me.

“How do we know you’re who you say you are?” I asked, ignoring her.

He laughed again. “Boy, there’s wisdom in caution. But don’t pretend you don’t already know who I am without me telling you. Learn to trust your heart. Things move a lot quicker that way. I am Uriel, and nothing else in this world can attest to being me. Now, clean that knife so we can be moving. I’ll fill your canteens.”

A red murk loosened from the blade as I dipped it in the water. While letting the stream do its work, I saw Uriel whisper something to the lioness and point toward the descending slope, where the stream curved and faded into the trees of the valley. She sprinted off in that direction and in less than a minute was out of sight.

When I had dried the blade, it glistened with renewed intensity. We set out just as the sun began curving toward the west. Noelle clung to my side while Uriel walked in front of us. A little ways into our journey, Uriel glanced back and saw that I was still handling the knife.

“You had best keep that hidden for the rest of the way,” he said. “It isn’t wise to reveal a weapon like that unless need demands it. Power draws lust from even the humble soul.”

I returned the weapon to its sheath. “Are there more people where we are going?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s another day’s journey ahead, which means one more night with the enemy tracking us. We’ll need to find a good hiding place sometime after sundown, but we should walk for as long as possible. I can carry the little one when her legs give out, at least for a while.”

When, not if. Noelle looked at me with clenched teeth behind taut lips—an expression I knew too well. I squeezed her hand the way I did when I wanted to let her know everything was going to be all right.

“Where’s the lion?” Noelle asked, her voice like a baby’s when contrasted to Uriel’s staunch tones. She seemed to have forgotten our guide’s prior foresight regarding her legs.

“I sent her to spy on our pursuers,” he said. “She will remain near our trail, but she will not approach us unless the enemy is too close to ignore.”

“I thought they were already too close to ignore,” I said.

“The two you met by the stream were scouts,” Uriel said, his eyes ahead of him. “The rest of their party is much larger, perhaps even more than I could handle in close quarters.” He lifted a low hanging, thorny branch so that we could walk under it. “That’s why we must keep moving for as long as possible. And we really shouldn’t talk either.”

And we didn’t talk, except to answer when Uriel asked us how we were managing. The landscape folded and rose, folded again and rose again toward greater heights as the sun sank toward the west and burned like the last strand of wick in a candle. When night fell, we walked in the dark, up and up, sometimes climbing with our hands in places where the slope was steep and rocky. By the time the moon had risen, Uriel had to carry Noelle.

I dreamed while I walked, even while I climbed. Of the night before, when it had been just the two of us in the cave. Of when we left the village and spent our first nights alone in this country’s wild jungle, more afraid of what was hunting us than any animal that might have killed us for food. Of Kofi, the village doctor, who told us where to seek Uriel. Kofi… was he still alive or had they gotten him too? I dreamed of Michael and the night he gave me the knife. Of my dad teaching me how to survive in the cold wilderness on Granddaddy’s four hundred acres. Of Mom sipping her coffee the night I was born, I mean really born. And through the haze of it all, Uriel was there—a fiery star amid the shades of my past.

When the dreams had at last abandoned me to the cool and hollow night, Uriel was still there, carrying my sister over his shoulder. He was that rare kind of fire that burned long after all the other flames turned cold. And then I wondered if God hadn’t sent us all the help we would ever need.

To Be Continued…