Lost and Found, Found and Lost

When he turned 40, Kenneth began to feel that something was missing in his life. Oh, he wasn’t a lost soul. He didn’t feel a need to find himself, whatever that might mean. He just felt that there was some thing, or perhaps some person, which (or who) would make his life more complete. Something was missing and he needed to find it.

It took him months to come to what was, for others, the obvious conclusion. He needed to find his birth father. Now Kenneth had a good life. His parents were loving. He had not lacked for anything. He wasn’t enormously rich, but he was well off, and didn’t feel any financial needs. He was married, and his wife and children constituted, as far as he could tell, the perfect family. Yes, there were conflicts. There was drama. But everything always worked out in the end, and he thought that was fine.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between characters and events in it and real life and purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014,
Henry E. Neufeld

His parents — he didn’t think of his dad as a stepdad, though he was — were involved in his life, but not too involved. They seemed to be careful to behave in just the right way for parents of an adult son with his own business and his own family. Yet when he mentioned searching for his birth father they seemed stressed, even though they didn’t tell him not to do it. So he decided to make the search quietly.

The story he had known all his life was that his father abandoned him as an infant and had never been heard from again. His stepdad had stepped in, as his title implied, and had provided for Kenneth all his life.

The search itself took months. You may think that all the fun in this story would happen during the search. But it was really quite uneventful. Private investigators interviewed people and found documents. Nobody tried to kill them. Nobody threatened anybody. His parents didn’t come and tell him not to look.

In the end, however, the search ended with a birth record in a small hospital and the name of a man who was now dead. There was no information even on where that man might be buried.

Kenneth still felt that something was missing. And now he was sure it was his birth father. Why couldn’t he even find a grave marker?

*****

A continent away in the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel, Gary looked at another report. (He hadn’t been called by his first name for years. He was Mr. Adamson to everyone. He was a powerful man.) He too had been searching, and since he was very, very rich he had more resources at his command than Kenneth. For nearly 40 years he had wondered where his son was. If his wife had lived, the search would have been a priority, but the police had searched diligently at the time, and he hadn’t seen any reason to try some more. Doubtless little Vincent had been killed years ago. His wife had also died a couple of years after their son went missing.

For weeks Gary had known where his missing son was. But when he’d looked at that perfect life, he had wondered whether he had a right to change it. His wife would have had no doubt, he knew. They’d be on the private jet that was waiting at the airport as fast as they could pack an overnight bag and they’d be talking to that son. But he wasn’t sure.

But this report changed things. His son was looking for him. His son wanted to know who he was.

He pressed an intercom button. “Get the jet ready …”

*****

And now the question: Who was lost, and who was found?

(This story was written while thinking about Lectionary Proper 12A, which will be discussed in the Bible Study my wife Jody and I host on July 21, 2014 at 7 pm.)

Ephesians 2 Haiku

One of the features of my Sunday School class is that we try to respond to the lesson of the day in the form of art, poetry, and stories. So what does one do with Ephesians 2 in terms of art?

I like to experiment, so I read up on Haiku (English forms) and decided to give it a try. I’ve read a bit of Haiku before, but I’ve never tried to write it that I recall.

So here’s my two attempts related to Ephesians 2.

Dying in the cold
Distant life-light given free
Being turns to meet

Dry growth failing, dead
Confusion to infusion
Fusion makes conclusion

Here are my more exegetical notes on the chapter Ephesians 2: The Radical Nature of the Gospel

Time to Shine

Jerusalem temple, solomon's temple, third temple
The older people who had seen Solomon's temple wept when they saw the rebuilt temple.Image via Wikipedia

“Arise! Shine! Your light has come! [Isaiah 60:1] Bah!” said the man with the white hair and long beard.1

“So you didn’t really like what the prophet said,” answered the other, somewhat younger man.

“Oh, the words were pretty. He’s a good talker, no doubt. But what do you think?” He looked down the road. It led to Jerusalem, where the temple was rebuilt–sort of–but where there were no walls. But there were enough ruins. Yes, plenty of those, telling the story of better days.

The younger man watched the other’s eyes and saw his thoughts reflected there. “But you know, the prophet stood amongst those ruins and made his proclamation. ‘Your light has come!’ Did your spirit not stir within you?”

“Oh, I think my spirit is past stirring. My spirit stirred when Sheshbazzar [Ezra 1] called for people to leave Babylon and return and rebuild Jerusalem. Oh, those were the days! We had pictures in our heads, beautiful pictures of what Jerusalem would look like, what the new temple would look like.”

This is a work of fiction, based on the texts cited in square brackets []. The characters and dialog are my own invention. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld.

“I think the temple is beautiful now! It’s a sign of what can be.”

“Oh, but you should have heard the older people wail when they saw the new temple. ‘Nothing like Solomon’s temple,’ they said [Haggai 2:3]. And they were probably right. What do I know? But I thought like you do now. I thought we’d make it work. I thought we’d soon have the city rebuilt.”

“But we’ve come a long way! We can rebuild!”

“Bah! You young’uns. Wait till you’ve lived as long as I have and see how little things have changed.”

“So what should we do?”

“We stay and we work. What else can we do? Do you have the money to move back to Babylon?”

“I’ve never seen Babylon. I wonder if it’s as good a place as some of you older folks say.”

“It’s better.”

“Better? Than what?”

“Look around you.” His eyes wandered, pausing on the tumbled down stones of the gate that hadn’t been rebuilt, then moving to the scattered piles of rock that had once been part of the town wall. He looked at the dusty road, where trees should have been growing. He looked back toward the town where a few houses had been restored, and where he knew very little grain had been stored. ‘Caravans cover our roads? Wealth of the nations coming to us [Isaiah 60:6]?’ Trading for what? Buying what? ‘Nations come to our light?’ What light? We don’t have enough oil for our lamps. You tell me, what light?”

“But shouldn’t we believe God’s prophets?”

“Oh, we had prophets in the old days too. ‘You’re going home,’ they said. ‘God has decided this is enough [Isaiah 40:2],’ they said. And now look at us! Believe me, none of us who heard those words thought we’d be spending our old age starving in the ruins.”

“So what do we do?”

“What can we do?” He paused and looked into the distance. “Yes, what can we do?”


What do you think? Is the old man right or wrong based on what you know of history?

When you’ve considered that, ask yourself whether you see prophecies of the second coming of Jesus in the same way. Do you use the same arguments? Do you see any parallels?


1 This story is based on the idea of deutero- and trito-Isaiah, which would have a prophet preaching late in the Babylonian exile and another preaching to the exiles at some point during rebuilding. If you prefer, think instead of a reading from an existing scroll of Isaiah.

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The Last Sandwich

“I’d like the sandwich you have in that bag.”

It was the odd way he said it and the foreign accent that made her stop and look to her left.  He was sitting on the sidewalk with his back to the wall.  He looked thin, and his clothes were worn, but generally clean and carefully patched.

“This is for my son,” she said.  “If it was for me I’d give it to you.”

“You can get another sandwich for your son,” he said.

“No, I can’t.  I used the last of my money to buy this one.  I have no idea where I’ll get any money to buy any more food.”

“Still, I’m asking you for the sandwich.” He didn’t sound angry.  He didn’t sound cruel, as though gloating over taking the last food from a child.  He just sounded matter-of-fact, like it was a routine request.

“How can you ask me this?”  She was angry now.  She didn’t know why she continued the conversation, but she did.  “Are you a cruel man?”

“I am a man of God,” he said.  “I’m asking you to provide for me.  God says that if you grant my request you will never again lack food for your son.”

She looked at him for a moment.  She somehow couldn’t think of him as a fraud.  She held the bag out to him.

She was a block down the street before she started to wonder how she would face her son and reached into her pocket.


How do you react to the man’s request and this woman’s response? What, if anything did she find in her pocket?

Now read 1 Kings 17:8-15. You probably already recognized the story, but go ahead and read it anyhow. Is your reaction to the Bible story different? Why or why not?

Comforted

She wasn’t comfortable with this visit, but it was her duty.  He had lost his son just three weeks earlier and she had conducted the funeral.  The death had been sudden, tragic.  The man had lost his wife only three years earlier, and his son was his life.  At the funeral he had been devastated.

Now he looked peaceful, almost happy.  It was very strange.  Could he get over such a loss in just three weeks?  He’d been away for the last two weeks, and had told nobody where he was going. Many had feared that he would commit suicide, or maybe already had.  But here he was, comfortable in his own living room, accepting her pastoral visit.

“You look better,” she said.

“I am better.”

“Where have you been?  Your friends have been worried.”

“I went hiking.  In the wilderness.  Mountains.”

“You could have been hurt.  Nobody knew where you were.”

“I wasn’t hurt.”

“No, I can see that.  But hiking all alone, in your condition!”

“Alone?”  He paused.  “I see why you say that.  But no, not alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“God was with me.”

“I know that God is with you everywhere, but you need human contact.”

“No, I needed to talk to God.”

“And did God speak to you?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Yes and no?”

“Well, there was no voice.  There were just trees, rocks, streams, mountains, birds, and yes, a few animals.  But I heard God.”

“And that has brought you this peace?”

“Peace?  Is that what I feel?  Then yes, it brought me peace.”

“So somehow in looking at the mountains you found a purpose in what happened to you?”

“No, no purpose.  It still makes no sense to me at all.  But I can live with it.”

“So you didn’t hear anything from God, you didn’t learn anything, but you found peace?”  As she said it, she knew it was wrong.  She should be celebrating his peace, not questioning it, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh, I did learn something from God.”

“Yes?  What was it?”

“As I looked at the mountains I realized just how overwhelmingly great God is, just how much beyond my understanding.”

He paused and she waited silently.

“I learned just one thing,” he said.  “I learned that God is God.”

Then YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.”  — Job 38:1-2 (author’s translation)

Then Job answered YHWH and he said, …
“Therefore I desist, and repent in dust and ashes.” — Job 42:1,6 (author’s translation)

Learning from Stories

I’m almost afraid to write about how one can learn and teach from stories, because I think a piece of literature requires only one justification–that somebody wants to read it. Come to think of it, it may need only that someone enjoys writing it.

I’m an extreme anti-snob in literature. I enjoy some very light reading and some very heavy reading. I get a kick out of people’s reaction to my reading. One day friends will be turning up their noses at what I’m carrying because they think it’s too intellectual and boring, and the next they’ll be wondering how I can read something so light.

But literature, particularly stories, can be a very powerful teaching tool. Finding stories that are entertaining is great. Finding stories that are challenging is even better. Both challenging and entertaining–that’s truly special.

But how can one use stories in learning? I start, not surprisingly, from Bible stories. The first barrier to be broken in really starting to get full value out of Bible stories is the respect and reverence barrier. In its most extreme form this results in people trying to justify every action taken by Biblical characters not clearly identified as bad guys “because it’s in the Bible.”

Most people have taken a step beyond that. They look for the people who are identified as heroes and then look for the lesson in the story. The hero’s actions are to be emulated; those of the bad guys are to be avoided. Now there is some small value in this process, though it is still pretty limited.

When you really start getting traction out of a story is when you can use it as a way of seeding thinking. What may grow out of that thinking may move far away from the original story, and that is very valuable. Any story, even the most imaginative, is anchored in some limited set of circumstances. You’re not likely to duplicate those circumstances.

This is directly parallel, I think, to the question of whether parents, teachers, and church leaders teach children and young people how to think and make decisions, or teach them what decisions to make. For a limited period of time, teaching the desired result may keep things under control more effectively. But over time, students are bound to exceed the chart of answers that you have provided.

You may have experienced something much like this in computer customer support. You get on the phone with a support technician, and the answer sounds coherent, but has very little relation to the question you asked. Why? The support technician is working from a script, and you’re not on the script. On the other hand when you get a really good technician, you may get some answers from the script when they fit, but then they can adapt to your more specific problem. Which do you want students to turn out to be?

In pursuit of this goal I suggest retelling Bible stories from different viewpoints. In my essay Interpreting Stories, I use the story of Elijah and Ahab and provide an example of telling the story from Ahab’s point of view. What’s the point of this? In this story we have very clear heroes and villains from the writer’s point of view. Elijah is a good guy, Jezebel is really, really evil, and Ahab is vacillating and mostly evil, though not quite irredeemable. So taking Ahab’s point of view leads us away from this simple “who had it right” view and gets us to relax and start looking at what other characters may have been thinking.

You see, Ahab could have presented substantial justification politically for his actions. It’s easy when you have a story with the good guys and bad guys clearly labeled. But if you’re in the story, it’s a little harder.

Let me touch on another story here, Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah is preaching that the people should surrender to the Babylonians. Other people are preaching that they should hold on, because God will not allow his temple to be destroyed. Now in class after class I’ve heard modern Bible students talk about how obvious this whole thing was and exclaim at how stupid Zedekiah was for wanting to lock him up.

But if you instead put yourself into the situation–a city under siege, the enemy surrounding the city, and someone preaching “Surrender!” at the top of his lungs, what would you do? The critical step here is to break out of a simple dichotomy of good guys right, bad guys wrong, and start to think about the situation reflected in the story.

Telling the story from a different viewpoint than the one reflected by the Bible writer doesn’t mean you have to agree with that viewpoint. It simply means that you have to make a serious effort to understand that viewpoint. In addition, you can often learn as much or more from a story in which you disagree with the viewpoint of the writer or of the lead character.

What about stories that aren’t from the Bible? I think it should be obvious that any story that raises any of the desired issues, such as ethics, philosophy, theology, or social policy, for example, can provide a good basis for discussion.

Why use a story? Why not just stick with the facts? For my Bible students I would point out that much of the Bible itself is story. But on a more general note, we need imagination to see the possible results of our “fact based” decisions. Stories can carry things to their logical conclusions, point out situations under which our simple answers might not work. Often a well-written or well-told story will allow people to seriously consider things they might otherwise dismiss. It’s a sort of half-way point between having a concrete example, and having a mere hypothetical example.

As an example, suppose one starts with the conclusion that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. The discussion can start by proposing hypothetical situations. Supposing a woman has been raped? Now there is no issue of her making a bad choice. She is being forced into this pregnancy. Most people who take an absolute view don’t respond to that point. But consider instead starting the discussion by reading a story that effectively presents the horror of the situation of a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape. While this is not the same as confronting the same situation in one’s own life (a loved one, for example), it puts flesh on the dry bones of the hypothetical.

Now there have been two general approaches to using fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction in religious study, at least amongst those who don’t reject it as dangerous. The first is to hunt down specifically Christian themes in the literature. This results in things like discussions of Christian themes in Lord of the Rings. Though this approach doesn’t excite me personally, it is not entirely fruitless.

The second is to use stories as a challenging source of material for discussion, which has been the theme of this little essay. Let me just suggest a couple of stories I’ve read recently that fit closely with serious themes. Since recently I’ve been reading Mike Resnick’s short stories, I’m going to point to a couple of them for specific themes.

The first is Hothouse Flowers [Amazon Kindle edition] which provides an excellent platform for discussing quality of life and end of life issues. This is one of those topics on which people tend to have pat answers. If you are going to be discussing this in a Sunday School class or a seminar in church, which is usually where I would discuss it, you might need something to stretch people’s thinking.

One standard Christian answer is that God decides how long you’re going to live, and we shouldn’t interfere with it. The interesting thing is that people can say this in reference to someone who has tubes all over and is in a coma. Who is interfering with the natural course of life? Is it the person who put the tubes in, or one who takes them out?

Resnick’s story presents us with a situation that has been carried to an extreme, and will set up a discussion of these more subtle issues. It’s an engaging (and disturbing) story as well, which is just that much better. [Apologies to those who would like a summary of short stories. I really don’t like to read reviews that tell me portions of the story so I try to avoid giving away any key points. You’ll just have to read it!]

The second story is Down Memory Lane (at Asimov’s Science Fiction), which deals with sacrifice. It’s an extremely touching story, and yet it raises questions about self-sacrifice, and who we are doing that sacrifice for. I think it will produce less acrimonious discussions than the previous one is likely to, but they can nonetheless be productive.

Finally, let me point out the novel Kirinyaga (also title of a short story [Kindle]), which examines questions of how we adapt to change, and also how we deal with real diversity. (There’s a good review of Kirinyaga here but I must point out that it tells a bit more about the course of the story than I like before I’ve actually read the book.) One thinks of the Amish, for example, who reject modern society. At the same time many believe that they should be required to give their children a modern education so they can live in the modern world. How far would you take non-interference? How easy would it be to interfere? Besides the issue of change, questions on the limits of tolerance and cultural diversity arise. How do you rank the values? Would valuing cultural diversity lead you to permit infanticide?

I doubt you’ll find any takers on infanticide in your Sunday School classes, but if you back off from that position slowly, you can discover just how far you would go.

Those are just three examples from my current reading. There are many more out there.

Psalm 121: A Translation and Poetic Response

OK, this is playing around. The first is a translation with some freedom, but with an effort to convey just a little bit of the rhythm of the Hebrew. It needs some more work. The second is just me having some fun with rhyme and meter, a practice I can always use.

I look up to the mountains,
Where can I find help?
My help comes from Yahweh,
The maker of heaven and earth.

He won’t let your foot slip.
Your guardian won’t sleep.

Not sleeping,
Not slumbering,
Israel’s keeper.

Yahweh is your guardian.
Yahweh is your shelter.
Right there with you.

By day the sun does no harm,
Nor the moon at night.
Yahweh keeps you from all injury.
He preserves your life.

Yahweh watches when you go out or come in,
Today, and every day hereafter.


And now the response:I gaze as mountains bar my way,
With pinnacle and rock and peak.
I ask myself whose help I seek.
Whence guidance comes I can obey.

To God I look when fears assail,
From right or left, by day or night.
When arrows fly from left or right,
My shield’s my Lord he will prevail.

No matter when I fear not sleep,
My Lord protects and guards my life.
Mid toil and trial, stroke or strife,
He stays awake, my guard to keep.

If battle call the trump should sound,
He watches every step I take.
And if a misstep I should make,
He puts my foot on solid ground.

He is my guard, he’s ever near,
So never danger must I fear.

Book: Pilate’s Wife

This book is well out of the norm for my reading, but the topic caught my attention, as well as the dearth of information with which the author had to work. It is hard to write a good novel about a historical character when almost nothing is known about that character. It doesn’t really matter what you write, somebody is not going to like it.

The first thing to note about this book is the subtitle: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Those who are expected a Biblical novel, one primarily oriented toward Biblical characters, themes, and goals will be sorely disappointed. The setting is primarily Rome and Roman social life in the provinces; Palestine only plays a small role when Pilate is sent there. In a Christian novel, Biblically based, one might expect a great deal said about Jesus and other Biblical characters. That is not the case here.

Second, one should be aware this is written about a woman by a woman, and it focuses on the woman’s perspective. In historical novels of this period that is not all that usual, because it is hard to keep things interesting when men are running the show and all the chief characters are women. I got the annoying feeling that the lead characters spend their time largely being pushed around by other people, with only brief moments when they can be themselves. Of course, that feeling is probably an accurate reflection of what it was like to be a woman at that time.

For historical connections, the author uses a couple of less probable reconstructions about Jesus, but those elements are not impossible, merely not proven, so that can be forgiven. It does make for some added interest in the story.

I have to rate this book at 3, because I found it interesting but not exceptionally so. I must note, however, that this is not due to any weakness of the book, but rather to my limited interest in the subject matter. Within its necessary constraints it is a good book.