Category Archives: writing

Ch 01: Pa-pah Grabbed

sling bulletsONE

Jayn was awakened by the slop bucket being dumped from the window of the room above hers. The sound was not enough to fully rouse her, but the patron in the penthouse had been taken ill the night before and his chamber pot was extremely full. Some of the night’s results splashed on the her window sill and the gentle breeze wafting through the open curtains soon began to carry with it an odor that would not let her drowse. Most mornings the stifling air of Shard would have brought in a stench from the whole city all night, and Jayn, once successfully asleep, would not have noticed any additional aroma. But on this morning the wind had turned from the West, from the plateau country, from home, blowing down on the city.

So the stink was undeniable.

As her nostril’s twitched in her sleep, her eyelids did as well—rapid eye movement as her dreams shifted and she re-lived the Handed Grizz collapsing upon her as it died, suddenly leaking foulness. She was gasping for air and, as her father weakly tried to pull her out from under the corpse, every breath was an agony to her ribs.

Then she woke panting, fingers twitching for a knife that wasn’t there anymore. She whipped her head back and forth trying to understand why she could still smell the Grizzly even though she was in a small room lit by the morning sun coming through the one window, not in the Dagnex wilderness under a winter moon.

But that was two years ago. It was just a dream. The odor became less intense as the breeze died down.

She remembered where she was and got out of bed. Changing into work clothes meant allowing her night wrap to fall to the floor and then kicking it onto the bed. Then she grabbed the green linen long dress and pulled it over her head. It was a pretty color but was otherwise almost as simple as something Jayn could have made from a bag by cutting arm and head holes. Jayn had actually made such a garment for herself more than once. But this one was bought in the beggar’s district with slightly better fabric and slightly greater skill. Jayn had paid twice what it was worth because she felt sorry for the one-handed seamstress. It was only later, telling Pa-pah about it, that she learned one of the girl’s parents, or perhaps some other self-appointed famlord, had probably disfigured her hand to produce precisely that response in a soft-hearted customer.

This had made Jayn feel horrible and want to burn the dress, or do something even more hasty involving tracking the girl’s mutilator to introduce him (or her) to the Lord’s law of retribution. But her father’s wisdom had prevailed.

The remembrance made her glance at his sleep mat (he had insisted that Jayn use the one real bed in the room.) It had been rolled up and stood on an end in the corner by the door. Otherwise Jayn would be stepping on it as she stood in the room. “Where are you, Pa-pah?” She wondered. It was not surprising, if he awoke before she did, that he would leave the room and get his mat out of the way to give her some limb space for changing.

As Jayn pushed her feet into her boots, pulling them out to get her ankles past the hidden sheaths, the breeze revived and shoved thoughts about her father out of her mind. “That smell! Where?” Finally she glanced at window and saw the dark stain on the sill and the brown spots on the light curtains. She stepped toward it, not able to believe that a stranger’s excrement was painting part of her room.

And then she saw her father, walking along the cobblestone street with a package of brown paper in each hand. His green cape with the horrible brown cloth repair was unmistakable at any distance. She noted to herself that they both needed to learn to dress better if they were really going to enjoy their newly won wealth. Even staying in one room seemed silly now that their payday had arrived. Frugal habits had a way of clutching to you.

As Pa-pah walked past the space separating two greenish clay brick buildings, the sun hit his hair and lit it up like a ruby. Jayn briefly considered calling to him to grab a bucket of water on his way up. But then she thought better of it. He was bringing breakfast. She should go down and get the water. Her sister Rachel would tell her that was the right thing to do. Of course, Rachel was always insisting on that kind of work. No matter how busy she had been during the day, when she would see Pa-pah and Jayn arrive back from the hunt. She would wordlessly drop what she was doing and grab the bridles of the steedsaurs and lead them to the trough. Once the pump had been broken and Jayn witnessed Rachel hand carrying bucket after bucket of water to feed their steeds.

Then it happened—thought of Rachel and all else was swept away.

From the alley between the buildings that her father was walking by, Jayn saw something shadowy in the air above cast a semi-transparent shadow over her fathers. Suddenly he was rolling in to the main street, his arms at his sides. It took her a blink to figure out that a net had just been cast on him. It had weights tied to it’s edge. It settled completely over Pa-pah and the momentum of the weights had made him crumple at the knees and then totter over.

Jayn screamed.

Suddenly the dirt street that had been empty of all but her father was filled with almost two dozen people. Almost all of them were dirty and ill-dressed. Many were boys and a few were men—all male. A few, she didn’t count how many, had bows on their backs. There were two who came from an alley astride steedsaurs, the special-bred low-running quadrupeds that could be used more easily in the city. They both had coats with the symbol of the three moons on their lapels, all colored red and yellow. That reminded Jayn that she was seeing some tatters of red and yellow among some other members of the crowd.

One of the two mounted men spoke as the ruffians swarmed over her father’s prone body. Jayn thought she saw horns pushing out of his forehead from underneath his tight dull miktrin helm, but his arms, which were bare, seemed as pasty as anyone else’s in Shard, so Jayn assumed he was human. The horns must be part of his headgear.

“You are summoned to serve the Oman military. This summons is in accordance with the protection treaty between Ome and this city of Shard. You are henceforth to give up secular occupations and relationships and devote yourself wholly to the protection of Ome.” He spoke fast, so fast it was as if it were all one word.

Even a hintergirl like Jayn knew what the uniform of Ome meant. Before the officer had finished rattling off his message, she had grabbed her rig off the floor by the window and jumped head first out of it, being careful not to come into contact with the filth on the sill.



No one  saw Jayn’s headfirst dive out the window. A witness would have thought she was an experienced city burglar. But she had only been in Shard for a week. Her instincts came from years of chasing small game through the cumulus trees that grew at the edge of the Dagnex. She had been chased once by a fanged glide-squirrel and discovered that she was able to leap and swing branch to branch twice as fast as she had thought.

She had looked out the window several times in the four days they had been in the inn. Jayn knew there was a clothes line on a pulley coming out of the wall, several forearms above the second floor balcony. Except for the stairwell landing, she had never been on the second floor, and had no idea if the balconies were off of private rooms or not. Hopefully she would be able to do her work quickly enough that it wouldn’t matter. Her left hand held the rig and she reached out with her right hand and grabbed the line.  It cut into her hand and her shoulder jerked as her feet passed her head and pointed down to the floor of the balcony. Her skirt was flapping wildly and probably immodestly. Nothing she could do about that. Worrying about it would only slow her down.

Three stumbling men had rushed her fallen father as he lay wrapped in the net. One was beating him with a stick, no doubt hoping to convince him to hold still. The others (while trying to avoid the stick, and giving some commentary in curses about their efforts) grabbed the net to pull their victim somewhere.

On Jayn’s rig, three sheath-locked daggers of different sizes and shapes were most prominent. Not as prominent were the two pouches, both buttoned shut. One was light end shapeless; the other heavy and lumpy. From the light pouch, Jayn pulled a coiled rope that fluttered in the breeze when she grabbed hold of it and shook it out. And the breeze no longer stank to her. It smelled of home. She wondered if she would ever see it.


Jayn dropped the rig to the balcony floor so she could unbutton the heavy purse without the contents dropping out. The flap opened to reveal dull metal objects shaped like small eggs with narrowed ends. She grabbed one and put it at the midpoint of her rope where there was kind of cradle shaped in spreading fabric. She grabbed the other end in the same hand and began swinging her weapon above her head. It traveled in a circle above her that had a radius of almost a stride.

The sling whistled familiar music to Jayn’s ears—an anthem of food on the table and sometimes the ballad of a last chance to save a life, her own or her kin, from becoming some creature’s meat. This was her first time hearing it in reference to a person. She was about to kill a man.

And she did.

The man with the stick somersaulted forward and lay still in the muddy street. This was the wrong target. The two who were dragging her father did not stop moving. Someone had come from the alley out of sight pushing a large wheel barrow among the mob. It only took seconds for Jayn to scoop up another lead bullet and get it swinging again, but she was losing time. Second shot collapsed one of the two who were putting her father in the wheel barrow, after he spun around once. But the other made the final push to get the netted bundle that was her father onto the wheel barrow. It started moving back the direction it had come, out of sight around the corner into the opposite alley alongside the other side of the inn.

Something dark sprang into view and Jayn bobbed her head over. A stone cut her ear as it passed by. It wasn’t pretty, but Jayn had felt pain before and she knew you had to keep going. She saw the young cutthroat who had pitched it. He had yelled as he threw so others were looking up to her place on the balcony. She noticed another ruffian unsling his bow.

This couldn’t work. Her father was already being wheeled around the corner and she would be dead or worse if she tried to go after him on the street. She needed to back away.

She scooped up her rig by the open pouch of bullets, hoping her grip would keep any from dropping out. As she did so she rotated and ran through the wide entranceway. It was a hallway not a private room. The second floor seemed designated to large rooms that could be rented. Right now all seemed deserted.


She ran down the hallway to what she guessed was the middle of the building where another hallway intersected. Then she turned left and ran down to another open doorway that led to a balcony just like the one she had left.  Just as she got there the officer passed under. She ignored him and looked back at who else was coming down the street toward her.

Most of the members of the press gang were glancing behind them, as if Jayn’s attack had alerted them they were being assaulted back on the street. No one realized she was trying to flank them. Only one man was pushing the wheel barrow that was carrying her pah. He looked up and actually saw her standing above him whirling her sling over her head. Then his head shot back and his whole body was jerked backward to the ground. She grabbed her third bullet and was whirling again when she heard a foot step behind her.

Pivoting, Jayn had time only to notice a grinning face with a few yellow teeth and bare muscled arms. He must have run up the stairs by the front door. Redirecting her energy, Jayn struck at his head with her loaded sling as if it were a melee weapon. He ducked. She tried to lower her aim as the bullet came around again in its fast orbit. He put his hand up into the path of the sling well inside the cradle. The ruffian grunted in pain when it wrapped around his hand but he still pulled it away from her. She held on to her end but was no longer in control as he dragged her closer.

Then he grabbed Jayn by the bangs above her forehead with his other hand, yanking her back away from the balcony inside the doorway.



Her attacker obviously had hoped to punch her in the head as he held it in place. But while his left hand held a fistful of hair near the scalp—Jayn felt the pain later but didn’t remember noticing it at the time—his right fist was wrapped up in the sling. Jayn twisted it around her wrist two or three times so he only had a forearm of space to work with. By holding her arm stiff and straight out, the ruffian could not get a blow into her face—at least not one with his strength behind it. So he began yanking back and forth trying to escape the leash that held him back.

He was a young man dressed in a leather vest and a dark kilt. Strong both of of limb and of stench—the latter from the typical gutter aversion to bathing that was a matter of pride to many of the street thugs of the city. Jayn had slaughtered too many animals growing up to let the smell distract her, but she knew she only had seconds. He would free himself from that sling in a moment’s struggle and beat her to death, or else keep her alive and conscious to do worse.

This would be a stupid way to die.”

She should never have let him sneak up on her. How could she, a huntress, be so stupid as to let herself get stalked like that?

She kicked up her knee toward the man’s groin. It was a predictable move and one the ruffian easily frustrated the kick by a slight turn of the hips. But Jayn was feinting. Both her boots had small sharp knives concealed in them. Bringing up her knee allowed her to reach one with the free hand. She had practiced the move a hundred times in a row in four sets, first the right boot and then the left, first the same hand and then the cross hand, every night she was on watch. In the dark she could not use her eyes to guide her so even now she could keep her gaze fixed on the mocking eyes of her assailant and not give him a hint of what she was doing with her hand.

If she attacked his face or belly he would have seen what was coming and probably dodged. A scar across the left side of his face told her he had already survived at least one knife fight. But she didn’t try to swing out away from her at him. He was holding her hair in a tight grip after all. The pulsing vein in his wrist was practically next to her left eye. And her small blade was sharp enough for a man to shave with without needing to wet his skin. She slid it upward fast, so fast he probably saw the blood spray before he felt the pain.

Jayn didn’t notice anything but that her head was now free. She swung around by the rope of the sling still binding her to her enemy as if she were dancing at a Ghanite wedding. She then pulled in just close enough to give his sling-entangled left wrist a slash to match his right one.

He screamed loud and pulled hard, finally getting his bloody arm free of the coiled sling.  Then he turned and ran toward the balcony. He was going to leap over and hope his friends would help him with the bleeding.

That left Jayn now unhampered with a sling that still had a bullet in the cradle. But she first had to unwind the ends of it from her wrist, and she only had seconds to do so. In her rush she managed to dislodge the bullet from the cradle. It hit the floor with a thud. Her eyes were fastened on it, realizing that she would never get it back in and sling it around enough times to use before her opponent had escaped. Then she heard a wet sound and a responding gurgle.

She looked up in time to see the man fall backwards from atop the stone wall of the balcony clutching his throat. An arrow had pierced from just below his chin through the back of his neck. Blood began running down the pavement toward her. Whoever the architect was, he had really botched the job of leveling the floor. Three more arrows shot blind and high, glancing off the ironwood beam that ran across the top of the hall doorway leading to the balcony. The group below had realized that someone was attacking them from the building and they had at least four archers now on alert. If she had come forward with her sling to the balcony’s edge, her throat would have had the hole in it.

Jayn crouched down and scooted to her rig lying on the balcony where she had dropped it. Then she scooted back out of range and thought hard as she put it over her shoulder. Daggers and purses in place (she also wiped and replaced her boot knife), Jayn headed back down the passageway away from the balcony. There was no way she could venture over the balcony and the gang had probably already left that street behind. In any case, she couldn’t fight multiple bowmen, arrows nocked, with a weapon that required a moment of whirling over her head. She’d be a pin cushion before she could let the bullet fly. Her only chance was to descend to street level and leave through an exit on the other side of the building. Then she would need to travel in a wide circle and hope she could catch up with her Pa and his captors.

This early in the morning, the stairwell was only dimly lit by the skylight at the top of the fourth floor. Thinking of muggers, Jayne rested a hand on one of the daggers in her rig. But no attacker was lurking in the shadows. She passed into the lobby where the large, wide open windows let in more light and breeze. A maidserf was replacing the flowers on the tables, but there was no one else there except the concierge behind the counter. They made eye contact and Jayn nodded curtly at him, acting as if holding a sling ready to whirl was nothing that required an explanation. Then she strode through the hallway that led to the back entrance out into the street.

The back of the hotel was much filthier than the other side. The street running East-West was almost an alley except that this quarter of Shard was too busy and too crowded to allow for even this area to be left unused to commerce. Another maidserf was here with a mop wiping down the dusty ceramic sidewalk of the hotel. Across the street a short, stocky, bald man with a white goatee was sliding open wide doors to reveal his stock of clay idols and carved ivory charms. Jayn held her breath and jumped over the drainage ditch that ran along between it and the road. Looking to her left, she saw what looked like her crowd winding onto another road that went right. She could cut across this street to the alley and then hopefully catch up to them.

“Halt, by order of the patrol.”

The voice was calm, but Jayn immediately stopped walking and turned to face the source. There were two patrollers, both in the standard black leather armor under cloaks and wearing the masks. The insignia of Shard covered their torsos in red and blue—“blood and bruise” was the saying. She didn’t know which one had spoken. Both held crossbows casually at waste level, pointed in the direction of the ground at Jayn’s feet. Both crossbows were loaded and drawn.



As calmly as she could, though she was panting from exertion and her heart was beating hard enough for her to feel: “As you order, Guardsmen.”

“Just say guards,” said the shorter one. Female voice. Jayne remembered overhearing hotel guests mention that was a recent change in the patrol and how it was not without controversy in the city. She nodded.

The taller one sounded impatient, perhaps with her or perhaps with his female partner. “Why are you carrying a loaded projector?”

The words were strange to Jayn. For a moment, she felt confused, not being able to take her eyes off the barbed tips of the bolts protruding from the crossbows. Then she remembered and glanced down at her right hand, still clutching the sling that dangled at her feet, the dull led bullet embedded in the cradle.

“Surely you know the city’s weapon limits.”

No projectile weapons. Jayn did know.

She dropped the sling and then to her knees, arms reaching up, palms out in local supplication form. “Please, I was not carrying. I have been attacked and was responding as is my right. I was in my room when it began and that is why I ran out with this—she gestured at the long strip of fabric with the bullet lying beside it shining with the reflected sunlight. My father, Sebastian Heerow, has been abducted by some mob. Slavers, I assume. He is a peaceful man—a trader here from the Highland Frontier. Please do not allow him to suffer this crime in The City Of No Night. I beg you to summon a posse.”

Jayn kept her head down in a posture she hoped would be taken for humility. The truth was that she feared her face would betray her. Slavers operating in broad daylight in Shard, even if early in the morning, was a claim that sounded like it came from over a half-century ago before the Oman settlement on soul commerce. But the last thing she wanted to tell the Patrol was that her father had been taken by an Oman Sea Host press gang. That too sounded outlandish because it was so rare. But it was also probably legal—a footnote in the peace treaty. The city residents would hate it—at least the steady ones. The dregs hired to actually participate were another matter. But no matter how much Ome was hated the city’s Patrol would never back her play if they knew this was a press gang.

Jayn made a mental note that she must forget she had ever heard the leader say the words of impressments to her father. All she saw was a mob nab her pah. That was her story and she must stick to it.

For the first time since the nightmare started she prayed. Silently.

“Lord hates lying lips. Let this be an exception.”

Benbacchus (Part Two of Two)


Benbacchus arrived in Jerusalem with many plans.  None of them involved a real rescue.  Riding by the cross fast on a horse with a javelin to skewer him as soon as he was on the gibbet was one idea.  Poisoning a drink was another possibility.  But he never had time to pursue any of these plans.  His caravan was delayed and Benbacchus arrived on the very evening his old friend was supposed to go to the cross.  Happily, the plans were not necessary.  By that time Jesus had managed his own way of escape.

Instead of hanging cruciform he was sitting at a table outside a tavern drinking beer.  Benbacchus found him and pulled up a chair.  “So why aren’t you nailed to a tree outside town?” he asked.  “I had it on good authority that Jesus was to die this day.”

He didn’t even ask Benbacchus how he happened to be back in Israel.  It was like the last ten years were as nothing and they were partners again.  “That’s a horribly common name these days, Phineas” he said, grinning.

“I go by Benbacchus now,” he said.

“A Roman name for the international traveler.  How did you come up with that one?”

“Few years back I was in Athens.  A couple of philosophers were asking me a lot of questions to figure out which god was worshipped in Israel.  After I described worship they figured the god of wine had to be the one.  After that I did a lot of work in Italy so the Latin version kind of stuck.”

“And you came from so far away to find me?”

“No, I was in Ephesus when I got the message.  Based on what I’ve heard about your arrest, it was more of a prophecy than a report.  Yet I guess that makes it a false prophecy since you don’t look like you’re being crucified.”

“Are you sure your message was about me and not another?”

“My source distinctly said, ‘son of the father.’”

“Yes.  That’s the name I use these days, but even it is not without confusion.  The bastard taking my place speaks of his father so often, I’m sure many might mistake that name as his as well.”

Benbacchus clicked his tongue as he got the waiters attention.  “Such language!  Don’t you feel a bit grateful that he’s on the cross instead of you?”

“Are you kidding? It couldn’t happen to a more deserving son of Belial!” The waiter came and poured Benbacchus a cup of beer. When he left, Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“About a year ago I got involved in a raid that pretty much scattered my team.  I had one companion who got away with me and everyone else got killed or was capture.  Naturally, I needed to do some recruiting.”

“Naturally” Benbacchus agreed.  The beer was second rate but he drank it anyway. Didn’t want Jesus to think he was getting snobby from his travels, even if that were true.”

“So I look around for something showy, and hear about this ghoul who has been terrorizing the region of the Decapolis.”


“Yeah, he hung out in the grave yards.  Powerful monster.  I was told he could tear up any shackles they tried to use on him.”

“They didn’t want to kill him.”

“Naw, before he got possessed he was the favorite son of a local synagogue bigwig.  No one had tried to simply kill him.  And I figured I could probably subdue him without doing so.”

“I’ve found it pretty difficult to save the person in those circumstances.”

He shrugged.  “Well, the benefit of being an outlaw is that it really doesn’t matter if I disappoint some synagogue ruler.  It still impresses potential recruits and I’m out of reach of such a man anyway.”

“So what happened?”

Jesus drained his cup and belched.  “Nothing happened.  I got there and there was no ghoul.”

“It was a false story?”

“No it was true as far as I could tell.  But that accursed Galilean beat me there.”  Jesus leaned over the table and looked me in the eyes.  “He did it with just a word!  A whole legion of demons were sent into a herd of pigs and then he drowned them in the sea.  He defeated an army without even trying.”


“From that point on I realized what a danger he was.  I’ve given—what?—two decades of my life to the fight against Rome.  You were with me for half of them.  I tell you, Phineas, this man is more of a threat than Caesar or Herod to everything we stand for.  What role is left for men of valor who live by their swords if this man can simply tame the monsters with nothing more than his tongue?  No bloodshed.  No heroism.  He doesn’t even have mastery of magic as far as anyone can tell.  There was talk for awhile but it didn’t stick.  He doesn’t do spells.  And yet he delivers people with a word and saves the lives of the possessed without ever losing one!  I saw him, you know—the ex-ghoul.  I didn’t want to believe it but everyone in the whole region confirmed his testimony.  Other than a few scars on his head, he was completely normal.”

“Scars?” Benbacchus asked.

“It would bruise his heads with rocks.”

“That sounds vaguely familiar.  Is there something in the Bible…”

Jesus waved away his question.  “The point is he was a real threat to the kingdom and to Rome too, ironically enough.  He disturbs the order of the ages.  The era of kings and mighty men would soon be over if he were to live.  Thank God the Priests were able to capture him.”

“First Rome and now the priesthood?” Benbacchus laughed.  “Are you making friends with all your enemies against this man?”

Jesus smirked.  “Haven’t you heard?  Even Herod and Pilate came to an alliance against this false prophet.  In a few hours he’ll be dead and there will be no doubt that this Jesus of Nazareth was not the Messiah.”

Benbacchus raised his cup, since it still had a swallow in it. “Then once he is out of the way,” he said, “I drink to the health and future kingdom of Barabbas.  May your sword bring you life.”

But as he drained his last dreg the sun went dark.



Of course, despite still being friends with Jesus, Benbacchus had long outgrown the ambition of patriotism.  And he was growing increasingly uneasy about living by the sword.  He had a small fortune saved and found an investment in Philippi.  Instead of fighting the demons for fame and fortune, he and Tullus bought one who was their own oracle of Delphi.  She told fortunes and made them a profit.

Until those two came and wrecked Benbacchus’ retirement.  “Has Tullus gotten the magistrate to act?” He asked the slave.  Even though it wouldn’t help him out financially, a little revenge would be of some comfort.

“Yes sir!  Already done,” affirmed the slave quickly.  “They are probably being beaten as we speak.  Then they will be locked up.  I’m sure they will learn their lesson.”

“Prison is the only place for them,” said Benbacchus.  “I hope they rot there.”

Benbacchus (Part One of Two)

“I am looking for Benbacchus!”

The man who went by that name looked up from his cups and squinted into the sunlight streaming through the doorway from behind the messenger.  He made a quick gesture.  “Come in and close the door.  You will set off many hangovers if you let more sunlight in.”

The messenger came through and let the curtain fall over the doorway.  Once visible by the lamplight, Benbacchus recognized the elderly and well-dressed slave of Tullus his Roman business partner.  “What is it?” he asked.

“Leta has lost the sight.”

“Are you sure!” He knocked one of his empties off the table, but it didn’t shatter on the soft earthen floor.

The slave gave a short shake of his head.  “We are sure of nothing.  Those two Jewish men she was following…”

“I told Tullus to keep her away from them!”  Benbacchus picked up the cup.  It was chipped at the edge.  There was no way of knowing for sure if it had been chipped before it fell.  It was still usable as far as the regulars were concerned.

The slave nodded.  “I faithfully relayed your message, sir.  I’m afraid my master saw the free advertising as too valuable to pass up.”

“I told him what they did to Elymas!”

The slave somehow nodded and shrugged at the same time.

Benbacchus spat on the dirt floor.  Anger with a tinge of fear crawled through his gut as he began digging out his change purse.  He’d better settle up his tab now.  The money would be gone soon enough.  “You don’t have to tell me what happened,” he grumbled.  “I can guess.  Jesus was right.  Such men need to be driven off the face of the ground.”

He remembered vividly how he first became aware of the danger in his hero days…

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RePost:One Night in Galillee

The elders at First Presbyterian Church of Capernaum assembled dutifully but none too cheerfully on a Saturday evening. Sabbath was over and no one was yet as strict on how to think of Sunday since Jesus had risen closer to dawn than the previous dusk. In any case, they simply had no choice but to make a decision before the Lord’s Day meal took place the next day. This was an emergency session.

Gathered round the table were six men. Four were lay rulers and one was a pastor. The four were something of local Christian celebrities for the area. At least, they were celebrities among those who were left since the disciples had left and virtually never came back to the region. Ananias, Joshua, Nathanael, and Simeon had been close friends for their whole lives. They had grown up in the area and become somewhat famous for their relationship to Jesus, not as members of his entourage when he was touring the countryside a couple of decades earlier, but as local supporters. They had gained a reputation because they had taken radical action demonstrating their trust in Jesus.

The pastor was a foreigner. Nicolaus had been raised as a good Pharisee in Alexandria who, upon converting to Christianity, had to flee from his own brothers who thought that they would be pleasing God to get him assassinated. He relocated to Asia and eventually become a pastor before a brief flurry of local persecution forced him to leave quickly. The caravan leaving that night happened to be heading south. One thing led to another and Nic (as he like to be called) found himself a refugee on the shores of the sea of Gallilee.

The visitor we will not name yet, except to mention that some others present had once damaged his property. His presence there was, humanly-speaking, quite coincidental. His mother-in-law had passed away and he had been able to return to deal with some estate issues. Since he was a nationally recognized Christian, everyone was glad that he had been free to return. If he had been busy with church work he would have refused to come, which would have caused more local grumbling in the area about the Gospel.

Nic spoke first. “I realize that it is usually appropriate for one in my place to preside over these proceedings,” he said. “But I have been among you as your pastor for less than a week. I know of many of the congregation from mutual friends or business associates across the lake” (actually, he said “sea,” but he was referring to Gallilee, not the Mediterranean, so I thought it best to paraphrase). “And,” he continued, “you know me by reputation, which is what caused you to take a step of faith and call me to be your pastor and teacher. Nevertheless, I have not been familiar with the person who we are discussing, whereas you three” he gestured to three of the four ruling elders, “have been life-long friends, and you, Simon, are his brother.” He turned to the visitor, “I understand you have met him as well.”

The visitor nodded but looked puzzled. “Ask any question you may have,” said Nic, picking up on the cue. “We are a small enough body that we can be somewhat informal.”

“Thank you,” said the visitor. “I understood you had relocated here three weeks ago after preaching and leading once or twice before.” Nic nodded, as did the others. “Then haven’t you actually met Jude?” the visitor asked. “My meeting with him, while memorable, was quite brief. He never even spoke. So, yes, I met him; but surely you shouldn’t downplay your own more recent acquaintance in comparison to something so brief and so long ago.”

“But I have never met him,” replied Nic. “Brother Simon, why don’t you explain to our honored guest what is going on. And also I will ask you to be the temporary president of our proceedings. I would rather one more familiar with Jude, one who I know loves him greatly, to take the leading part in this unhappy business.”

Simon nodded. Nic had told him before the meeting what he planned to do and he saw the wisdom in it. “Yes, our pastor has never met Jude because Jude has ceased attending Lord’s day worship. He attended sporadically for awhile, but my brother was not attending when our brother and new father Nic came to preach to us those days.”

The visitor said nothing but nodded that he now understood.

“So then,” said Simon, “since we have all confronted my brother today, and since he refuses to be present with us to speak any word good or bad or hear any final exhortation, there is nothing to do but name the offense that is known to all and make our ruling to be announced tomorrow.”

“Just for the record,” asked Nic, wanting the visitor to hear the answer, “how many times have you met with him about this?”

“Many more times than we have with any other offender of this sort,” said Nathanael, barely keeping bitterness out of his voice. “Not three times but three times three, and three times more than that if you count all the private individual attempts that have been made to divert Jude from his present path. The only possible complaint anyone could have regarding these proceedings is that they should have taken place long ago. He was our best friend for so long, and such a renowned person here, it was difficult to bring ourselves to this step.”

“Don’t bee too hard on yourself,” said the visitor. “You are here to do the right thing.”

“Then to name the charges…” said Nic, looking at Simon. He wanted to get the unpleasant business over with.

“My brother,” said Simon, picking up the hint, “has left his wife and abandoned his young children and has taken up with a “concubine”–or so he rationalizes his behavior–that is easily less than half his age. He has claimed the right the Pharisees teach and simply written out a divorce document. But even if that were legitimate, it is an known fact that he himself acknowledges that he was having an affair with this girl and also with others, purchasing various thrills with money that should have supported his family!”

“Then it is time to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins,” murmured the visitor.

“Umm… ” Nic plainly felt uncomfortable interrupting. “Sir, with all due respect I don’t understand how we can say any such thing.”

Everyone looked at Nic in surprise.

“I don’t mean that he should not be declared an unbeliever!” Nic hastily clarified. “I mean that if he were ever forgiven then he would have never fallen away. Forgiveness is forever.”

Joshua laughed in a way that did not sound very happy. Anannias elbowed him, and the rest looked at him with startled expressions.

“Please forgive me, brothers and fathers,” he said quickly. “A certain bitter irony just caught me by surprise. One which I will respectfully share with all of us here in this assembly.” He hesitated for a moment, as one would expect of someone trying to gather their thoughts amid great emotional turmoil. Everyone waited for him to speak.”

“As I believe Ananias, Nathanael, and Simeon will confirm willingly,” Joshua began slowly, “I have been Jude’s closest friend. Since early manhood I believe I have been even more his confident than Simeon.”

He paused and Simeon decided to encourage his friend. “Yes, you are right. You’re own ill health at that time made it convenient for you to spend many hours with him in his room or on the roof when the weather permitted. Your brothers and mine would be out helping our parents. I often wished I could have a few of those hours.”

Joshua smiled grimly. “I can’t say the memory of them is all that pleasant at this time. He would spend many hours telling me what great feats he would do, what heroic actions, if he could only walk. And now that he is healthy, look what he has done with the Lord’s mercy in his life!”

“But let me get back to my point, brothers,” he said, stirring himself out of distant memories. “I bring this up to say that I began to suspect, or rather to feel that something was wrong, long before anyone else and even before any real evidence justified my admonishing him. But I did, as the time when all became clear approached, counsel him to avoid certain temptations and certain directions that could lead to death. He always told me that I had nothing to worry about, because “once forgiven, always forgiven.” Not wanting to turn friendly advice into a theological debate, I didn’t push the issue. But my testimony is this: that his confidence in this matter led directly to his carelessness.”

The visitor spoke up, “Did he never hear our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant? It would have taught him not to presume on past forgiveness and may have caused him to turn from his ways!”

Before anyone could answer, Nic spoke up, “What parable is that?”

The visitor looked surprised so Simeon told him, “Our pastor was well-acquainted with Scriptures that we have always had. But until he came here, his acquaintance with our Apostolic writings was limited to the letters Paul has written.” Without explanation Ananias got up and left the room.

“I did get a look at James’ epistle one night staying at the home of Philip,” interjected Nicolaus. “The sermon on the mount, which I am reading now, reminds me of many things I forgot about that letter.”

Simeon nodded. “Yes, Nic has just received a copy of Matthew’s Gospel and probably would have read further except he was called away from his studies to deal with this crisis.” Ananias came back holding a scroll and put it on the table. It was plainly titled so even the visitor, who had not seen that particular copy, knew what it was.

The visitor nodded. “That explains more than just his ignorance of the parable in which we were warned of having our forgiveness canceled.” He reached for the scroll and began going through it to find a passage.

Nic winced as if someone had scraped their fingers across a chalkboard (though I don’t know if anyone knew about chalkboards back then). “I will read the parable and submit to God’s word, of course brothers. But I understand parables are mysteries and need to be interpreted carefully. Until I am convinced I stand by my conviction that we must inform Jude that, assuming he never returns to us, he has proven that he was never forgiven of his sins.

“But he was, Nic,” said Simeon. “There is no point in denying it. We five were all there.”

Nicolaus looked confused.

“It is not just our testimony, actually,” said the visitor. “Here it is in black and white.” He pushed the open scroll to Nic. The visitor was right. There it was in the new Scripture:

And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

“You see,” said the visitor, who, if you haven’t already figured it out, was the Apostle Peter himself. “There is no way to do this except to declare that he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”

Nic opened his mouth. But then he closed it. The issues were clear before him and he had to make a choice. Was he now going to insist that this meant that Jude was guaranteed to repent. Had Jesus told him and everyone else in hearing distance that Jude was eternally predestined to inherit eternal life? Jesus had forgiven others, he was sure. Were these people singled out for the unique blessing of being told by direct revelation that they were predestined to life. Or was it still possible to warn them against the possibility of backsliding into sin and unbelief and the eternal consequences that would follow from an hardened, impenitent heart? To his credit, the idea that they might still inherit glory while dying as unbelieving apostates never occurred to Nicolaus.

“Maybe I should read that parable before I comment further,” he said, finally.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

Trying to navigate the Romans road

“Honey, are you sure you know where you are going.”  Abe hated asking his wife this, because he knew he would get quite defensive if he had been driving and she asked the same question.

“I don’t see how I can be lost,” replied Sara.  “I looked at the map and it shows the restaurant is near Soter Way. “

“True,” admitted Abe.  “And you even asked directions at that church on Straight Street and the pastor told you the same thing.”

“Right!” said Sara.  “So why don’t we see any sign for Roma’s?  I want to eat!”

“I guess we need to pull over and look at that map more closely.  It is hard for me to study it while driving.”

They pulled into the parking lot of the Berea Apartment complex and both looked at the map together.  With some work they realized that even thought they were close, they had missed a few key details they needed to see if they were going to actually arrive at Roma’s.  They were in the right area and they knew the important streets, but there were still some important turns they needed to make to get all the way there.

Ironically, it was their familiarity with the area that had led them to assume they knew all they needed to know in order to reach their destination.

RePost: my last article for Ligonier Minstries’ Tabletalk magazine

Originally posted on 7/30/2007.

Title: HIStory

Column: A Pastor’s Perspective

Date: Don’t have that written down on my copy.  Sometime between around 1999 to 2000.

Magazine: Ligonier Ministries’ TableTalk

Quick! What’s the basic message of the Bible? Summarize it in as few words as possible and say what first comes to mind.

Here’s how I would answer the question:

Boy meets girl.

No, I am not joking. We see it in the happy ending of Revelation, which shows us a wedding between Christ and the church and tells us that they live happily ever after. We see it in Adam and Eve all the way back in Genesis 2, which–as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5–refers fundamentally to Christ and the church. When we read in Luke 2 of how the Spirit will overshadow Mary, we realize that the description of the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 involved the same theme. From beginning to end , this theme of boy meets girl pervades all of the Bible.

Twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, and once in an incident reported in both Joshua and Judges, we see a man coming together with his wife in association with a well or spring of water. Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah, the future wife of his master Isaac, at a well. She gives him a drink and waters his camels, demonstrating that God has chosen her to be the bride. Jacob meets the shepherdess Rachel at a well. He rolls away the stone that is blocking the spring and then waters all her flock. Moses meets his future wife Zipporah at a well. He defends her and her sisters (who all “just happen” to be shepherdesses, just like Rachel was) from bullying shepherds, then waters their flock. Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to the man who defeats the Canaanites in Kirjath Sepher.  Othniel captures the city and wins the bride. In receiving her, he also gains some land grants from her father. Due to her petitioning her father, the grant is expanded to include springs of water.

So when Jesus meets a woman at a well, in Samaria, what are they going to talk about? Even if you have never read John 4, the answer should be inescapable. When Jesus meets this woman at a well, they are going to discuss her marital status. Indeed, Jesus rescues her from a much more dangerous threat than bullying shepherds.

There is much else to support this basic biblical theme. Space would fail if I were to mentions the Song of Solomon, the role of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, and the way Proverbs culminates with the portrayal of the ideal wife. Neither could I list here all the times Jerusalem or Israel is called God’s wife, setting us up for the identity of the church as the bride of Christ.

There are two things we have to keep in mind if we are going to understand the Bible as God’s literary masterpiece. First of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of providence: God is in complete control of everything that happens in history. As we read about the events recorded in the Bible, we must apply this doctrine by bearing in mind that not only what God is said to have done in these events, but also the events themselves, are part of His message. God could have brought about Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in some other place, but he predestined it to take place there. It is not simply what Jesus said that reveals god, but the entire situation in which Jesus acts.

Second of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of inspiration. Every word, every jot and tittle of Scripture, is the very Word of God. It is not merely the overarching truths that are inspired but the words used to express them. With the woman at the well, John could have summarized what Jesus said about the Spirit without quoting the metaphor of water or mentioning the well where He spoke. He could have overlooked what Jesus said about her marital history. But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John set down those statements.

If we remember these twin truths, we should be able to navigate between two common errors. Many conservative evangelicals, who (rightly) affirm the inerrancy of the scriptural record of events, treat the events themselves as virtuously meaningless. The fact that the same things keep happening is simply ignored. Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes do much better at seeing the meaning in events, but they treat the Scriptures as a fictionalized account that cannot be trusted for historical veracity. For conservatives, the woman at the well really happened, but her encounter with Jesus is important only in that it gave Jesus a chance to say some things He could have said almost anywhere else. For liberals, the woman at the well fits nicely into the themes and theology of the Bible, but her encounter with Jesus probably never really happened. Rather, it is the work of a novelist.

But if we acknowledge that God is the great novelist, then we need never choose between meaning and truth. God is more creative than any human being and can make His novel work better than any merely human book. But God is also all-powerful and sovereign over history. Thus, God can make history be His novel. Therefore, He can make a truthful Bible work better than fiction, even while remaining completely truthful.

As characters in God’s novel, we usually don’t see how our problematic lives can possibly be leading to the kind of tidy plot resolutions that we find so satisfying in a narrative. But the Bible can function as a corrective to our lack of faith. As we see what a well-woven tale the Bible is, how it is all true, and what its story is about, we can believe that our own stories will make sense because they are tied to that story. We have to trust the Novelist to finish His work and vindicate His graciously chosen protagonists. Ultimately, He is going to win the girl.

Thinking fondly of James Graham right now

KidnappedSo I’m reading Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (Puffin Classics). And it occurs to me that Robert Louis Stevenson knew what he was doing naming the ship Covenant–the ship where David thought he was invited by a friend.  There are all sorts of ways a crew can kidnap you.  I’m thinking that Stevenson may have given the idea to John Buchan.