Monday, April 30, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Next to faith, this is the highest art: to be content in the calling in which God has placed you. I have not learned it yet."

- Martin Luther, the great 16th-century leader of the Reformation and founder of the Lutheran church

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Keep us, O Lord, from the vain strife of words, and grant to us a constant profession of the truth. Preserve us in the faith, true and undefiled, so that we may ever hold fast that which we professed when we were baptized; that we may have you for our Father, that we abide in your Son and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- Hilary of Poitiers

Friday, April 27, 2018

Short Story: The Street Arabs

The story below is from my early days of fiction-writing, but I think it's a nice one. It's a short little story, inspired by the famous old photograph below of homeless immigrant boys warming themselves on a street grate in Manhattan. I hope you enjoy it.

He smiled, watching the snowflakes sink slowly to the ground outside the window.  Beside him, a little girl sat on the arm of his easy chair, absentmindedly stroking his wispy white beard.  She looked up, her big eyes glistening brightly.  “Tell me another story, Grampy.”
He chuckled and glanced back out at the snow.  It was cold, so cold…

The icy wind screamed over the bay, ripping the heat right from their bodies.  Duncan shivered against him as they held tightly to each other to keep warm.  It had only been one week since the two brothers had been left alone on the street, their parents having died of sickness on the ship. 
He smiled as he remembered them outside of their little home outside of Glasgow, before the hard times had come and driven them away.  Duncan’s red hair fluttered in the air as he glanced up. 
“Ah, I wish we’re back in da hameland,” he smiled.  “D’ye r’member the ol’ but-├ín-ben by the loch, Aidan?  It’s allus so warm there.”
Aidan nodded, a tear springing in his eye at the memory.  “Aye, I ‘member.  I ‘member so much.”  He paused, looking at his brother’s shivering form.  “Come wid me, Duncan.  Ye’re in need of a wee bit of heatin’ there, afore we freeze.”
So saying, he drew the youth by the shoulder into one of the narrow, dirty alleyways.  In the corner a small boy lay against a metal grate, his eyes closed.  His cheeks were rosy against the cold and his breaths poured out like bright puffs of steam. 
Aidan ran forward and settled on the grate beside him, pleased to find heat slowly spilling up onto him.  Duncan sat down wearily and fell against the other boy’s shoulder, causing the latter to awaken and look at them with bleary eyes. 
“Hullo,” Aidan smiled, blowing on his fingers.  “It’s a bit hillbilly out, i’nt it?”
The boy’s face wrinkled with confusion at the remark, and he paused for a moment before replying.  “‘ello.  It’s cold.”  He looked down at Duncan for a moment, then turned back to the elder brother.  “You’se come down from da docks?”
Aidan nodded.  “We’re from the Glasgow sheep.”
“Sheep?” the boy was obviously confused.  “You from a sheep?”
Aidan nodded, pleased with the boy’s comprehension of what he thought was not a difficult subject to grasp.  The other boy shook his head dazedly, then changed the subject.  “What’s yer name?”
“Mine’s Aidan.  He’s Duncan.”
“Aeddan,” the boy replied, trying to mouth out the unfamiliar name.  “I’m George.”
Aidan nodded and smiled.  “How’s she cuttin’ wid you?”
The boy paused, now even more perplexed.
Aidan muttered under his breath, searching his mind for another phrase to help the daft child understand common speech.  “How’s it gaun?”
The light of understanding lit George’s face.  “Ah, I’m alright.  A mite cold and hungry, but alright.”
Aidan nodded sympathetically.  “Aye, I’m a wee bit hoongry too.”  He sighed, then continued.  “Let’s a-go and look around dese shops for some scones ‘n kippers to aet, then.”
George frowned, obviously reluctant to leave the warmth of the grate, but he relented and shook Duncan to wake him.  The little boy moaned and opened his eyes as he was pulled to his feet by his brother.  Their bare feet nearly froze on the cold stone as they stepped away from the grate and back on the street.  They walked what seemed leagues upon leagues of the cold, hard streets before they came to the little shops near the dockside.  They huddled down under a table for a moment, discussing a plan before dashing back out. 
Aidan and Duncan strolled leisurely up to a large table set out on the street that bore all sorts of breads and warm loaves.  He was suddenly filled with the craving to simply rush forward and grab one of the loaves for himself, but decided to stick to their arrangement.  Behind the table, a large, greasy-looking man glared at them unkindly.
“What a nyaff,” Duncan sniffed under his breath to Aidan, but he ignored the comment.
“Rare day, sir!” Aidan smiled cheerfully.
The baker’s brow furrowed with thought, trying to read through the boy’s thick accent.  “Just run along and play, sonny,” he smiled half-heartedly.
Aidan tried not to glance over, seeing loaf after loaf disappear off the edge of the table.  Only a little more, and George would have all he could carry.  “Um,” he fought for words to distract the baker’s attention further.  “A bit coold, i’nt it?”
The baker nodded, now becoming annoyed, but Aidan kept the one-way conversation going well.  “Ah, me Ma would tell me about dese days, and denn Da would say, ‘Oh, ye’ve never died a winter yet!  So don’t gie’s yer worries, right?’  And denn Ma would say—”
The baker huffed loudly at the nonsensical dialogue, then sharpened up suddenly as a large man grabbed the two boys from behind.  Aidan glanced up to see a scowling man holding him by the shoulder.  “Ah, George!” the older brother shouted.  “The baw’s up on the slates!”
George took the hint and dashed away as fast as a bolt of lightning, his pattering little feet pulling him out of sight in an instant, loaves and all.  The baker’s fat cheeks flushed with color and he stood there flustered, his tongue rolling around, searching for the words.  Duncan giggled at the sight.  Suddenly the baker turned to them, an accusing finger pointed.
“Ye’ll pay for all those loaves, boys!”
The other man’s grip on Aidan’s shoulder tightened, and the boy looked up to see a warm, kindly face in place of the scowling, judgmental one he had seen a moment before.  The man smiled and laid a few coins on the table. 
“You needn’t punish them, good sir.  They are under my care.”
Duncan was confused, but Aidan smiled and looked up with wonder.  After a moment, the man took them aside, his lined face warm with sympathy.  “What are your names, lads?”
Aidan gulped nervously.  “Aidan and Duncan MacCainnech, sir.”
“And where are your parents?”
“They’s dedd!” Duncan suddenly burst into tears and lowered his little head against the stranger’s shoulder. 
The man rubbed the boy’s flaming red hair for a moment, then stood as if having made a decision.  “Come on boys, you’ll live with me.  The streets are no place for two good lads like you these days.”
They smiled and took one hand each and walked off down the alleyway together, rounding a corner and disappearing into the mists of time and a destiny that fortune favored to bring them. 

The old man rubbed a tear from his eye silently, then leaned down and kissed his granddaughter on the forehead.  Her eyes were closed, her little head resting against his great chest.  He sighed at length and took her in his arms, cradling her in his arms as she slept.  “May you never live to see such days come again, little one.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Meaning of the Cross, Part 4

* The following is a sermon, the fourth in a series that I wrote as Lenten reflections. I don't usually post sermons here, because (at least in my practice) they work better as a spoken medium, and this blog is devoted to the written medium. But they do give a good look at the significance of Christ's death on the cross, so I offer them here as a fitting follow-up to our recent celebration of Holy Week.

~ ~ ~

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the meaning of the Cross. Specifically, we’ve been asking the question, “What was it that Jesus accomplished through his death on the Cross?” And we’ve seen that he forgave our sins, that he began the healing of our sin natures, and that he triumphed over Satan and death. But today, in our last meditation on the Cross before Easter, we’re going to take a slightly different look at the Cross. Instead of asking, “What was it that Jesus accomplished here?” we’re going to ask, “What does the Cross tell us about what our lives should look like?”

The truth is that the New Testament repeatedly brings up the Cross of Jesus not only to talk about what he accomplished, but about what the shape of our own lives should be. The Cross isn’t just a historical act that happened almost 2000 years ago; it’s also a picture of what the Christian life should look like. And today we’re going to look at two different passages that illustrate that fact, one in Mark and one in 1 John. They tell us that our own lives should reflect what Jesus did on the Cross.

If you look at the Cross, you’ll notice that it has a vertical part and a horizontal part. And that’s the image I want to work with this morning. The Bible tells us that our life should be like the Cross, pointing in two directions: up to God, and out to other people. I should thank Rachel, who brought up this analogy a few weeks ago in a prayer meeting. Our lives should be pointed toward God in worship—that’s the vertical piece—and also out to the people around us in love—that’s the horizontal piece. And we need both—if we lose either our love for God or our love for our neighbors, then we’ve lost the shape of the Cross. We need both pieces.

1.) Vertical: Sacrifice Yourself to Follow God (Mark 8:34-37)

We’ll start with the vertical piece of the Cross. If you will, turn in your Bibles to Mark chapter 8. You’ll find it on p.872 of your pew Bible. Mark chapter 8, starting at verse 34. Here Jesus is talking to his disciples, and he’s talking about the Cross. He hasn’t even been arrested yet at this point in the story, so he’s just trying to give them a forewarning about what was going to happen to him. His disciples were expecting him to keep getting more and more famous and powerful, keep doing more and more miracles, and then, eventually, restore the Kingdom of Israel to its independence. But that wasn’t what Jesus came to do, and he had to prepare them for what was going to happen. Instead of gaining more and more earthly glory and power, he was going to go to the Cross and die. 

And then, after telling the disciples that he was going to die on the Cross, we come to our passage for this morning. And here Jesus says something interesting. [Read text] Do you see how he’s moved from talking about his cross to our cross. In some way or another, the Cross will define our lives as Christians. It’s not just Jesus’ cross; it’s our cross too. 

When Jesus said that he was going to go to the Cross and die, the disciples didn’t take it too well. If you look up the passage just a couple verses, you’ll notice that Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking that way. But now imagine the disciples’ response when they heard that not only was Jesus going to die this way, but they too were going to have to voluntarily submit to the humiliation of the Cross.

Why was it such a big deal? In our culture, we’re very familiar with the symbol of the cross—a symbol of holiness and faith. But in that day and age, before Jesus died, the Cross was a very different symbol. It was a symbol of the criminal, the symbol of execution. It was the symbol of horrendous pain, humiliation, and shame. To get the sense for the effect that the Cross had in that day and age, substitute in a symbol from our day and age—the electric chair. What would people think if we started putting a little electric chair on top of our steeple, or wore little model electric chairs around our necks? They’d think we were crazy! The electric chair is a symbol of crime and execution—it’s a horrible symbol. Well, that’s what the Cross was in that day and age. And that’s why Jesus’ disciples reacted so strongly to Jesus’ talking about this. 

Then he says that we need to take up our own crosses and follow him. He’s asking us to take part in a walk of shame. This is the part of the crucifixion where the criminal, already beaten and bloody, takes the cross on his back and carries it to the place where he’s going to die. And all along the way, the people of the city line up along the side of the road and they mock him and laugh and him. They swear and throw things at him. It’s a walk of tremendous shame. And here Jesus says, “If you’re going to follow me, that’s what you need to do. You need to take up your own cross.” If Jesus was here talking to us today, he might use the metaphor I just used. He might say, “If you’re going to follow me, you need to get strapped into the electric chair every day, with the whole world watching.”

Well, what does he mean by that? For most of us, he’s not saying that we actually have to be physically executed to be his follower. While some people will be martyred and die for their faith, for most of us he’s talking about dying to ourselves. He’s saying that we need to die to our own plans, our own wills, our own selfish desires, and to follow his way instead. 

Now, some people will actually have to die physically because of their faith in Jesus. We call them martyrs, which comes from the Greek word that means “witness.” And even though most of us won’t have to face that, we need to have the kind of faith that could face that. If we’re following Jesus, we need to be committed enough to follow him to the death, or we’re no followers at all. Thankfully, we live in a country that doesn’t persecute us, that doesn’t make us choose between our faith in Jesus and our lives here on earth. But that’s not the case everywhere, and it hasn’t been the case throughout much of our history. For the first three hundred years of Christian history (longer than the whole history of the US)—Christians were persecuted, and many of them died because of their faith in Jesus. And then again in the 1500s and 1600s—the Puritans and Anabaptist leaders who founded the branches of the faith that our Baptist denomination comes from—they faced persecution too, and a lot of them were executed for following Jesus. And in our world today, it’s still going on in China and the Muslim countries. It’s estimated that more people died for their faith in Jesus in the 20th century than in all other 19 previous centuries combined. We live in a country where that doesn’t happen, but we shouldn’t forget that it does still happen in our world today. The country where I worked for a few months—Sudan—there are people who are killed there for their faith in Jesus every day. So when I went there, doing discipleship work and helping to spread the Gospel, we actually had to work very carefully, almost like an undercover operation. All that to say, although you and I might not have to face execution for our beliefs, we still ought to have the kind of faith that is willing to face even death for the sake of Christ.

But as I said, for most of us, this teaching comes down to a spiritual reality—dying to oneself. When Luke quotes this same verse, he adds “daily”—take up your cross daily. So he’s not talking about physical execution, he’s talking about self-renunciation—about giving up those things that we hold onto too tightly. He’s talking about giving up those desires and affections in our lives that steal our hearts away from God. It might be our desire for a good job, for money, prestige, power, sexual satisfaction. There are so many things we chase after, so many things we think will satisfy us and make us happy. But Jesus says, “No—if you’re going to follow me, you need to be willing to give all of that up. You need to be willing to die to all of those things if I ask you to, and just follow me.” 

This is a call to sacrifice, to submit ourselves to the will of God. And the will of God is not always easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century Christian theologian who was also actually a martyr, said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Christian life is a road of sacrifice. You may hear TV preachers telling you that if you follow Jesus, your life will be full of flowers and sunshine, and God will bless all your family and your bank account, and you’ll never be sad again. Well, that’s not quite true. God does bring us deep joy and satisfaction—joy that can’t be found anywhere else. But he also calls us to sacrifice. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something we need to do. We’re all born with an inherent selfishness. We all look out for number one first. We’re wired to be concerned first and foremost with our own interests and needs. And if we’re going to be disciples of Jesus, we need to change that. We need to become people who can lay that natural selfishness aside, each and every day, over and over again. It’s a hard sacrifice, but it’s through that daily cross that we become the people we were meant to be.

Let me tell you about one of these sacrifices of the Cross that I felt God calling me to make once. When I was a college student—not that long ago, actually—I was at a Christian college, with a lot of really wonderful Christian friends. They were devoted, passionate followers of Jesus. And, being a young man, I was always a little bit interested in the ladies in my group of friends. I hadn’t really pursued any romantic relationships during high school, because I wanted to wait and find someone who was really deeply committed to Jesus—I knew that that’s the only kind of marriage that really works like it’s supposed to. But now here I was, surrounded by girls who were very deeply committed to Christ. So even though I didn’t go on many dates, I always had my eye on some of the girls, always thinking about the possibilities of a romantic relationship here or there. And then in my sophomore year, I felt God telling me, “You need to lay that aside for awhile.” So much of my energy and emotion was going toward thinking about that, and my spiritual life was getting impoverished. And I knew from Scripture that sometimes God’s followers are called to a life of celibacy—a life of total commitment, as a single person, to Jesus. It’s a tremendously high calling, and unfortunately we don’t honor it in our Baptist and evangelical churches the way that we should. But both Jesus and Paul give hints that some people are called into a life and ministry of singleness. And I when I felt God calling me to lay aside my romantic speculations, I knew that it might be forever. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to lay that aside. I’m not going to think about it, I’m not going to pursue it. Unless you give it back to me, I’m going to pursue you alone, God.” And it was actually a wonderful season of my life. Even though my thoughts about possible relationships weren’t wrong in any way, I still felt tremendously liberated to have lain them aside. And then, of course, you can all see the end of the story. God was gracious to me, and he gave me back that possibility. And Rachel was one of those tremendous friends of mine in college, and the rest is history.

So sometimes what God calls us to sacrifice can be something very good. But we need to give it up when he asks us to. And sometimes, as in my case, he might give it back to you down the road. Just like when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac—God might give that thing back to you; he just needs to know if you’re willing to sacrifice it. But sometimes he might not give it back. But we still need to do it, because the truth is that when we obey and sacrifice those treasured things to God, the rewards we get, deep in our soul, are far and away better than anything we had imagined before.

So how do you die daily? Start with little things. Sacrifice some of your time, and give it to praying and reading the Bible. Sacrifice some of your energy, and give it to performing good deeds and helping the homeless and the needy. And seek God out in prayer; ask him what he wants you to sacrifice in order to follow him. It might not be an easy thing to let go of, but if you do it, then you will find a richer life on the other side. 

Being a Christian isn’t all about feeling good and getting to heaven. It’s about making a radical change of life, a demanding change of life. So this is the vertical part of the cross for us. It’s pointed toward God. It’s about choosing a lifestyle of sacrifice so that we can follow God’s will. This isn’t an easy message—the Cross is never easy—but it’s worth it. God wants to make something extraordinary of us, but it takes hard work and sacrifice. It’s a lot easier to ignore God’s calling and leave the Cross behind. But your life will be shallower if you ignore the cross he’s calling you to bear. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Reach out for the life God has for you, and be willing to take up your cross.

2.) Horizontal: Love One Another (1 John 3:16-18)

So that’s the vertical piece of how our lives should resemble the cross: a life of sacrifice devoted to God. And now we come to the horizontal piece. If you’ll turn in your Bibles to our second passage, it’s in 1 John chapter three, page 1056 in the pew Bibles. [Read text] What does the Cross mean to us? It’s a dramatic demonstration of the depth of God’s love! This is how much he loves you—enough to face the humiliation, the pain, the death that crucifixion brought. John goes even further—he doesn’t just say that this is how we know how much God loves us, he says that this is how we know what love is. If it wasn’t for Jesus, we wouldn’t even be able to begin to understand the nature of real love. This—the Cross—is the highest expression of love possible. Every other kind of love that you experience in your life is just a shadow, just a pale reflection of the love of God. And he doesn’t have to love us. We’re not that lovable most of the time. But he does. There’s a great line in a song by Michael Card, and it says, “He loves you with passion and without regret; he cannot love more and he will not love less.” 

And then John tells us that the Cross should inform the way we live our lives. Because of what Jesus did there, we also ought to love one another. And it should be the same kind of love—a love that’s willing to give everything up for the sake of someone else. John isn’t the only one in the Bible who says that we should have the same kind of love that Jesus did. Jesus says it many times, and Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians. He tells husbands to love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church—to love with utter self-sacrifice. What would the church look like if our love for each other—husbands for wives, wives for husbands, parents for children—was the same kind of selfless, depthless love that Jesus showed? That’s what we’re called to, friends.

And how do we do it? John gets us started. In this passage, he tells us not just to talk about love. Start doing it! Give to the poor! The test of whether we really understand the love of God, the test of whether we have it in our hearts, comes down to whether or not we act lovingly toward others, even towards people we may not know. Do we have compassion on people in need? Do we go out of our way to comfort the grieving? Do we give of our own time and resources and energy to help someone else out? Don’t just talk about love, do it! 

So many people today know how to say, “I love you,” but they don’t even know what it means. To use an example from popular culture, most of you have probably seen a certain set of beer ads that have been playing the last few months. Now, I should say up front that I’m in no way giving a thumbs-up to the beer industry, but I think the example they used is one that most of us have seen, so I’m going to borrow it as an illustration. In these commercials, a man and a woman are out on a date. And the man can say quite plainly that he loves his beer, but he runs into trouble when he’s asked to say that he loves his girlfriend. Either he can’t even pronounce the word love, or he’s just completely dumbfounded to explain what his love means.

I actually don’t mind that commercial, because the truth is, a lot of people in our culture don’t understand what love is, and they certainly don’t practice love. It would be better if they didn’t even use the word, because the word itself has become devalued for us. Now we think about love as an emotional state. Love as a feeling. Well, if love is only a feeling, then we end up in the situation we’re in now as a society, when marriages can be broken off for something as simple as the fact that those feelings aren’t there any more. But Scripture tells us that love is so much more than a feeling. Love is a conscious decision, backed up by action, to do good to another person. It usually involves those warm, happy feelings, but love isn’t reducible to those feelings. As John reminds us, love is an action. So don’t just tell your spouse that you love them. Don’t just tell your children that you love them. Don’t just tell your friends that you love them. Reach out proactively and love them with actions, not just with words. 

If you’re not sure whether you’re quite there yet, up to the biblical standard of love, here’s a neat exercise. Flip over to 1 Corinthians 13. 1 Corinthians 13. As you find it, let me give you a little background. This is the famous “love” chapter that Paul wrote. It’s beautiful, it’s articulate, and it also challenges us to think about love in terms of actions rather than feelings. Okay, if you’ve found the chapter, look at verse 4—1 Corinthians 13, verse 4. [Read text] Now here’s the challenging exercise. In place of “love,” read your name in there. And then see how you feel. Do you measure up? So for me, it would read ‘Matt’ in place of ‘love,’ and you, of course, would read your own name: “Matt is patient, Matt is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. Matt is not rude, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Matt does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.” Oh, how I wish that were true! How I wish I measured up to these things! I think for each of us, this challenge would show that we have a long ways to go yet. 

But that’s the standard we’re called to. We’re called to reflect the same love that Jesus showed us on the Cross. And can you imagine what our lives would look like if we were actually possessed by that kind of love? Can you imagine what our family lives would look like? What our church life would look like? If our church was characterized by that kind of love, there wouldn’t be a person in the world who wouldn’t want to be a part of what God was doing here.

But, of course, we’re human. We sin. We fall short. And God knows that, and God still loves us. He’s patient with us, and if we let him, he’ll do that long, patient work of transformation in our hearts. And little by little, as we follow after him, we’ll find to our great surprise that these things can become more true of us. The love that Jesus had can shine through us. But we need to work at it, and we need to let God work in us.

So that’s the horizontal piece. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross, we need to stretch out our arms to those around us. 


So what does the Cross mean for us? First of all, it’s a dramatic picture of the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice and the depth of his love. The Cross helps us understand how deeply God loves us, and it’s a deeper love than we can imagine. But the Cross doesn’t just tell us about God, it also tells us about ourselves. As we’ve seen today, both Jesus and John turn it around. They tell us that the Cross should be the pattern of our lives to. They tell us that if we’re following Jesus, then we need to be ready for this kind of sacrifice, and we need to be displaying this kind of love. 

The vertical piece points to God: we’re called to make sacrifices in our life, as a worship to God and as an expression of commitment to him. And the horizontal piece points outward to others. We’re called to demonstrate to those around the kind of selfless, unimaginable love that Jesus showed us. Those two things can never be separated—love of God and love of others. Whenever Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, he always put those two together: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. They have to go together. If you don’t love God, then you won’t be able to really love your neighbor, because it’s the love of God that teaches us and enables us to love. And if you don’t love your neighbor, then you can’t really love God either, because God loves your neighbor, deeply and passionately.

So as we go into Holy Week, as we think about the story of the Crucifixion, let’s remember that the Cross is the pattern of our lives, too. Let’s imagine what our lives might look like if we laid down our selfishness and pursued the sacrifice and the love of Christ crucified.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rend Your Hearts

“As for our days before we were regenerated, may they be forgiven and forgotten; but since then, though we have not sinned as before, yet we have sinned against light and against love—light which has really penetrated our minds, and love in which we rejoice.  Oh, the atrocity of the sin of a pardoned soul!”
– C. H. Spurgeon

I am the prodigal, the traitor, the slave,
I am the voice screaming against the night,
For I have tasted of the higher way,
But still, in all the crushing moments,
When choice turns into treason
And the frail illusion of all I’ve clung to
Mocks me to my face,
I have nothing left but to fall, empty,
And acknowledge who I am.
Called to follow, but yet I hold back,
Called to serve, but yet I flee,
Called to love, but yet I will not obey.

Judas am I, the tragic villain of this age;
A friend I was, a follower indeed,
But with a single kiss I sealed his fate
And joined hands with the enemy I despise.
I watched in silent, wrenching horror
As he walked quietly away to die,
And I, in my foolish pride,
I see that I’ve become the pawn
Of a twisted and malevolent evil,
And it was these hands, these lips,
That gave that evil its power.
The Son of God dies because of me;
The Son of God dies because of me!
Back to the Temple; back to the golden courts
Where the hypocrites spin their lies
In the presence of the Living God!
The coins scatter across the floor
Like the shattered pieces of my heart,
But even this is not enough.
Silver I was given for my very soul,
And the wrong I have done is all I can see.

Peter am I, the coward and the fake;
My friend, my brother, my master, my God…
And I denied him; I denied him!
One blow I struck in his defense, one blow alone,
And even that he declined,
His eyes full of the fire of impassioned love.
Frightened and dismayed, I fled in the night,
And my heart was lost to me.
Yes, I love him!—And so I follow,
Carefully, cautiously,
Into the ravenous den of lions.
Do I know this man?  This man, so despised?
Beaten and weary, he is burdened with taunts.
Him?  No, I know him not.
Three times!  Three times, and then…
That fatal cock-crow, the sound of dawn…
O God of my fathers, have mercy on me!
My Lord and my God, have mercy on me!—
For I have forsaken the one I love.

Thomas am I, the zealot with no courage,
The disciple with no faith.
To Jerusalem, to glory and despair!
Together we would embrace our demise,
Martyrs all, of one heart and spirit.
If he would die, then we would die;
We were his disciples.
But in that final, horrific night,
As the mob’s torches echoed mockingly
The white light of heaven’s stars,
I had no brothers left to stand beside.
Jesus stood alone before the traitor
As my brothers and my friends
Fled into the dark safety of the garden.
And, God forgive me, I followed them—
Not him, the one who had called me to follow,
But it was the cowardly refuge of the weak
That I joined, and proved to all the world
That my love for him was empty,
That I could not share the terrible power
Of the cup of his suffering.
It was over; it was over!
I’d failed the test.
And not even the wild, hopeful cries I heard
On the morning after the Sabbath
Could rouse me from that despair.
I had fallen in the night, and my hope was dead.

Judas, and Peter, and Thomas am I,
But more still than these—
I am the man on the crest of Golgotha,
I am the man of fire and sword,
The hammer of a pagan empire.
I look at the tortured, dying king,
As he writhes, bloody, on the ground.
I curse him loudly and kick his lacerated back.
With a groan he collapses onto the cross,
His life already nearly spent.
Viciously, I stretch his arms out
And pull the long, sharp nails from my belt.
A hammer-blow, and he screams.
The harsh resonance of the metal pleases me,
And I strike hard again,
Watching as the Messiah clenches his jaw
Against the pain that I can cause him.
Tears spill from his bloodshot eyes
And mix with the scarlet flood
That courses down his cheeks.
His other hand, his feet, fall beneath my hammer.
And the strength of my arm, my will,
Has pinned him forever to that cruel frame
And stolen his every hope of life.
Mine was the blow that felled the Christ,
Mine was the power that made him weep.

I am the prodigal, the traitor, the slave;
I am the voice screaming against the night.
But you tell me I am not, O God;
You tell me I am more;
But who is it then who does the things I do?
If not me, then who?
Who is it who betrays the Christ,
Denies him, crucifies him over and over again?
Why do I find myself again in the muddy pit;
Why am I chained in the enemy’s camp?
Here I stand again in the wilderness,
Turning stubborn stones into bread
That I may feast with Satan one more time.

Lord Jesus!  Have I ever truly loved you?—
To love you is to keep your commands.
Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
You know what you must do—
Keep the commandments.
But I have never kept them faithfully,
From the time I was young until now…
What hope is left for a man like me?

Come, and follow.
Come and follow, and I’ll open for you
A new world, a new life,
A resurrection that will make you sing
With all the power of the breaking dawn.
You are more than a prodigal;
You are my son.
You are more than a traitor;
You are my friend.
You are more than a slave;
You are the servant of the Living God.
Stop doing wrong; learn to do right!
Obey, and follow.
Come towards me, and I’ll be there,
Sustaining and upholding you
Though Satan’s gale rages all around.
Oh, my child—I’ve not come
To call the righteous to repentance.
It was your blow that pierced me,
Your kiss that betrayed me,
And so it was for you that I died.
Freedom is yours, and life is yours—
All you must do is follow, and believe.
The Kingdom awaits your choice, my son—
Step out into the tempest of living,

And I will make you truly alive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Photo of the Week

"The promise of entering His rest still stands."

- from Hebrews 4:1

Monday, April 23, 2018

Quote of the Week

"To love is difficult, for loving's not enough;
Like God we must ourselves become that very love."

- Angelus Silesius, from his book of devotional couplets, The Cherubinic Wanderer

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O God, the unsearchable abyss of peace, the ineffable sea of love, the fountain of blessings and the bestower of affection, who sends peace to those who receive it, open to us this day the sea of your love, and water us with plenteous streams from the riches of your grace and from the most sweet springs of your benignity. Make us children of quietness and heirs of peace. Enkindle in us the fire of your love; strengthen our weakness by your power; bind us closely to you and to each other in one firm and indissoluble bond of unity. Amen.

- Syrian Clementine Liturgy

Friday, April 20, 2018

Worth It All (Table of Contents)

Worth It All (Part 7 of 7)

* This is Part 7 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

Anna was on the front step even before Mary had time to dismount. She had sent her young chambermaid out to the McNeill estate to inquire after the old servant’s health, and then, if the opportunity arose, to speak to Victor on Anna’s behalf.

Anna bit her lower lip in fear-fraught anticipation, her hands locked tightly against her breast. The maid avoided her lady’s gaze as she slid out of the side-saddle, her feet landing softly against the flagstone paving. Hesitantly, she drew in a breath and looked at her mistress. Her dark eyes were full of cautious sorrow, sorrow that rent Anna’s heart before even a word was spoken.
“Would he not even hear you?” she whispered, her voice husky with emotion.
Mary sighed. “He wasn’t there, my lady.”
“Then why do you look so forlorn?”
“I spoke with Lady McNeill. She was standing at the door as I rode up. She said that Master Victor had just left. I asked her where he had gone and when we could expect him back, and I could see that she didn’t want to tell me.”
Anna swallowed nervously. “Did she tell you?”
The girl nodded. “Ruben has arranged for him to go meet another woman. He was going to find her.”
Anna turned her face away, ashamed of how quickly hot tears had sprung up in her eyes.
“Another woman? Victor? I didn’t think….But perhaps it’s nothing. Perhaps it’s one of Ruben’s silly games.”
Mary shook her head. “Lady McNeill said that Victor was…was looking for a wife. It has to do with a requirement from his missionary agency, I think. She…she told me not to tell you that, but….I’m sorry, Anna. Oh, please don’t cry. Now I’ve broken her confidence and your heart, too.” She ran up the marble steps and wrapped her slender arms around her mistress.
Anna was fighting, trying desperately not to weep. She thought she was stronger. She should have been stronger. But the past few days had stripped away all of her defenses. She wasn’t even sure who she was anymore.
“Are you certain, Mary?”
“I don’t know…that’s what she said. I saw Ruben walking in town, but I didn’t stop to speak with him. I didn’t want to keep you waiting.”
“Thank you.” It was all she could say. She had no strength for anything else. She clung to the frail serving-girl, hoping that somehow she could go on. It was only when she heard the sound of footsteps behind her that she straightened her posture and broke the embrace. Still looking into Mary’s tearful dark eyes, she tried to smile.
The bass growl of a throat being cleared sounded from the doorway behind her.
“I…I hope I’m not interrupting anything, Miss Anna.”
It was Lieutenant Green’s voice. Elijah’s voice.
She closed her eyes briefly, drew a breath, and turned around. He was standing in the open doorway, tall and powerful in a dark waistcoat that emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. She saw his gentle expression turn to concern as she raised her gaze.
“Are you quite alright, my dear?” he asked, stepping forward to take her by the shoulders.
She pressed her lips together tightly for a moment. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I’m alright now, Elijah.”
“Your father said I might find you here. I was hoping to take a walk in the gardens with you, but…perhaps another time would be better.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m ready, Elijah. Let’s walk.”
“Splendid,” he said, offering her his arm. She linked her elbow with his, and together they began strolling along the front of the grand house, toward the rolling gardens that lay on the east side of the estate.
Mary watched them disappear around the corner of the house, unable to hide the sorrow on her face. She released a heavy sigh and walked down the steps to where the little gray mare still stood patiently. Running an affectionate hand along the beautiful animal’s silky neck, she smiled wistfully.
“I was at the point of believing that it might work after all, Duchess,” she whispered.
The horse nickered softly in reply, and Mary shook her head. “But maybe this will be better in the end. Africa really is no place for—”
Her words faltered as she caught sight of a bulky, dust-covered form burst through the ironwork gates of the estate. His rolling gait was almost a jog, and though he was breathing heavily, the fire of secret delight shone from his face.
“Ruben O’Connell!” she hailed him. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“For the love of God, Mary, why didn’t you stop?” he grinned. “Didn’t you hear me call out to you?”
She shook her head. “No. I did see you, though.”
“Why didn’t you stop to say hello? I could’ve used your help.”
“Truth be told, Ruben, I was a trifle upset with you.”
“Oh? Why?”
“I’m told that you’ve set Victor up with another woman. You had to know that would break my lady’s heart, regardless of what her final choice might be.”
Ruben laughed and waved both arms. “No, no. That was all a distraction. It’s nothing, nothing. I had to get Victor out and away whilst I set things in motion here in town. Had you stopped when you saw me, I could have informed you of the details.”
Mary regarded him with a quizzical expression, now less certain than ever of what was actually going on. “Well, I was on an important errand for Miss Anna, and I wanted to return quickly.”
“Oh? I also have an important errand for Miss Anna. Where is she?”
Mary grimaced slightly. “She’s gone for a walk in the gardens with Lieutenant Green.”
Ruben cocked his head to one side, studying her gaze for a long moment. “You mean more than you say, Mary. Is this walk important for some reason?”
“Master O’Connell,” she breathed, “I think this walk could be very important.”
“Oh, hellfire take me now,” he groaned. “Well, I have to stop them. Did they go this way?”
“Wait!” Mary called, stopping him in his tracks.
He whirled back on her, his face a mask of impatient vigor. “What is it?”
“Anna is precious to me. I won’t have you barging in on her like this until I know for certain what it’s about.”
He let out a frustrated blast of air. “I think there’s a chance of getting Victor and Anna together again. Together for good. I just want to get Anna down to the McNeill house to talk with Julius first—maybe…I don’t know, maybe hearing his stories, his longing for Africa and for its people…maybe that might help her consider the Lord’s heart for Africa before she sees Victor again. It’s all I could think of. But we don’t have much time.”
“You really think it might work?”
“If Anna can resolve herself to serving the Lord as a missionary, then I think Victor will take her.”
Mary allowed a slight smile to turn the corners of her mouth. “Come, then. I’ll take you. Quickly now!”
They raced around the perimeter of the house, swiftly following the course of a little footpath that ran parallel to a tall hedge of bushes. Verdant foliage flew past them in a blur. Though Ruben scoured the grounds with his gaze, the couple was not in sight. Suddenly Mary held up her hand, and they both froze.
“There they are,” she whispered.
“Behind the hedge. They’re walking this way.”
Ruben hunched down against the bushes, peering through a crack in the foliage. And, sure enough, there they were. Anna was studying the ground at her feet intensely as they walked, while the Lieutenant was stammering through a rehearsed speech, his eyes riveted straight ahead. His stride was stiff, almost nervous, but even so there was an aura of calm authority about the man.
When they were directly across the hedge from where Ruben and Mary were hiding, the Lieutenant abruptly cut short his step and turned to face Anna. Ruben watched in dismay as the proud officer took her hands in his own, a look of hopeful expectancy on his hard countenance. Behind the couple, the silver waters of the little fishpond glimmered and danced beneath the noon sunlight.
“What are you going to do?” Mary whispered in Ruben’s ear.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you had better do something fast. I think he’s about to—”
“Anna.” The Lieutenant’s gentle baritone echoed over the waters. “You do understand what I’ve been saying, don’t you?”
She hesitated, still looking down at their joined hands. “I think I do, Elijah.” There was a tremor in her voice, but something in her tone made Ruben suddenly afraid.
“She wouldn’t, would she?”
“I think she might,” whispered Mary.
Just then the Lieutenant began to kneel, sinking down on one knee. But even as he dropped, Ruben knew he could wait no longer. He hated himself for what he was doing, but he was certain that if he didn’t do it, he would always look back to this day with profound regret. With a bellow like that a whipped ox, he flung himself into the bush and crashed through to the other side. The Lieutenant whirled on him in shock and alarm, but it was too late. The momentum of his charge sent him barreling into the officer’s chest, and both men went head-over-heels down the shallow incline and into the water.
“You drunken fool!” Lieutenant Green roared, scrambling to haul himself upright again. His waistcoat was soaked through, and his dark pants were now coated in a thick layer of mud and slime.
Ruben looked up at him, his expression a mixture of shock and apology. “Oh!” he said, still sitting in the shallows of the pond. “I’m very sorry, sir.”
Anna stood on the bank, her mouth wide open. “Ruben,” she finally managed to gasp. “What…what are you doing here?”
“I was…on a fox hunt,” he said, glancing in both directions down the path. “You haven’t seen the little rascal, have you?”
“A fox hunt?” Elijah scoffed. “And pray, sir, where is your horse? Where are your hounds?”
“Well, as Miss Nelson could tell you, I’m much too poor to afford a horse or hounds. For us peasants, the game is much more exciting. They’re quick little devils, those foxes, especially if you have to chase them on foot. I can see why you privileged classes enjoy it so much.”
“Bloody Irishman,” he growled. “You’ve had a bit too much ale, I think.” Turning to Anna, he gritted his jaw and frowned. “I’m sorry, Miss Nelson. Perhaps we can continue our discussion after I’ve managed to dust up some dry clothes for myself.”
“Yes, Elijah…perhaps we can.”
He nodded curtly, then turned, stepped up the bank, and marched swiftly down the path towards the house.
Anna turned her gaze back to Ruben, fixing him with an imperious glare.
“Alright, Ruben. Tell me what that was all about. And be careful. What you’ve just done is enough to lose a lifelong friend.”
Ruben sighed and lifted himself up to his feet. A flood of droplets showered down from his drenched clothes. “Forgive me, Anna. I just need to ask you one question. If you say no, you can go on with your conversation with the Lieutenant.”
“Alright. What’s the question?”
“If you had one more chance to get back together with Victor…would you take it?”
Anna stood there silent and expressionless for a long moment, her wide eyes locked on Ruben’s face. Then she began to smile.
“Yes,” she said. “I would.”
The young Irishman grinned impishly. “Then come with me.”

~ ~ ~

“Ruben,” Victor growled under his breath. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
The Dover road had offered a long and unexciting string of villages, farmland, and empty landscapes, but none of the women he had encountered were of his acquaintance. He felt a little awkward, wondering if the poor, footsore travelers noticed his open stares as he tried to hunt down the woman Ruben had arranged for him to meet.
The noontide sun was hot above him, and though the sweat was beading on his brow he still trembled with shivers of nervousness. Finally, at the end of a long, straight stretch of dusty road, he glimpsed a figure that seemed vaguely familiar to him. It was difficult to tell from behind, but as he drew nearer, the impression grew more certain. And then suddenly, he knew who it was. He groaned and drew the carriage to a halt, muttering as many creative curses against his friend as his mind could generate.
With a resigned sigh, he urged Phaeton back up to a gentle trot, and within the space of a minute he had pulled up to where the young woman was walking, a large wicker basket hanging from the crook of her elbow.
“Hello, Felice,” he called down to her, doffing his cap. Felice was Ruben’s sister, two years his junior, a stout, heavy-set lass who, despite a gentle disposition, seemed to bear a naturally dour expression. Victor had never been able to shake the unfavorable feeling that Felice was the image of what Ruben have looked like if he had been born female. But while Ruben’s rugged countenance gave him a sort of hard-edged charm, the same characteristics in Felice resulted in a rather unappealing visage. But she could be amiable, and Victor had always been a friend to her. Even so, he had never entertained romantic considerations about her, nor did he now. He found it difficult to believe that Ruben would think such a match possible.
“Oh, hello, Victor,” she said, looking up at him in surprised pleasure. “What are you doing out here?”
“Just enjoying the day. Beautiful weather, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it certainly is.”
“Where are you headed today, Felice?”
“To Uncle Donald’s house. Momma decided to send him some food, since Auntie’s been ailin’ of late.”
“Well, you must have come a long way already. Would you like a ride? I can take you the rest of the way.”
“Oh…I wouldn’t want to trouble you none.”
“It’s no trouble for a friend. What’s the sense in having a carriage if one doesn’t use it? Climb right inside, and I’ll have you there in the wink of an eye.”
“Thank you kindly, Victor. It is very gentlemanly of you to offer.”
“Don’t mention it,” he smiled, watching as she opened the door of the carriage and stepped up into the inside. He would have offered to let her sit up on the bench with him, but he was still simmering over Ruben’s tomfoolery, and she was probably more comfortable inside the cab as it was. He waited until he felt her weight settle in the carriage seat, and then snapped Phaeton’s reins.
“Come on, old friend,” he called to the horse. “Just a bit farther.”

~ ~ ~

Ruben had left Anna with Julius in the McNeill’s sitting-room. The old servant was sitting there awake, sipping a soothing broth when she came in. Ruben bade her sit down, too, guiding her toward an empty chair.
“Here, Anna. Victor’s out on a little errand that I sent him on, just a little something to keep him occupied for a bit. He’ll be back soon. In the meantime, Julius, I hope you don’t mind entertaining the lovely young lady. Now, Anna, you may not know this, but we recently discovered that our dear old Julius is a writer! Lots of stories about Africa and his tribe, about the way that God plans to spread the Gospel among them. Go on, Julius, tell her all about it. I’ll just slip out and leave you two alone until Victor gets back.”
Anna gave him a bemused smile, but sat down obediently. She didn’t ask any questions, just gave Julius a polite nod as he cleared his throat to meet Ruben’s request.
Ruben, for his part, was glad that she wasn’t overly inquisitive, so he set off into the city again, but not to retrieve Victor. He had other things on his mind now. Victor would return after the diversion with Felice played out, find Anna there in his house, and then they would have to sort things out on their own. He had played his part, and now the fire was burning inside of him to have his own romantic scheme played out. He wasn’t a man of great patience, and now that the impulse was firm within him, he knew what he was going to do.
His legs were stiff and sore, but somehow he found the strength to run. The streets of Canterbury had already seen him pass through twice that day, and now he made his way through the ancient maze again. Up past the grand cathedral and beyond, his steps led him to the outskirts once more, to a tiny, blockish house that had become one of his favorite sights in the past weeks. Dashing up the narrow dirt footpath that led to the door, he paused for a moment to catch his breath.
“Well,” he whispered, “here we go.”
But just as he raised his hand to knock, the door flew open. With his fist still upraised, he regarded Patience Carmichael with a bemused grin.
“Ruben,” she said pleasantly, her cheeks dimpling in a smile. “I thought I heard someone gasping like a dying man out here. Been running, have you?”
“Just to see your face, my love.”
“Is that so?” she laughed. “Why don’t you come in, then? Papa just came back from a meeting with the rector, and he’ll be happy to see you.”
He followed her inside, and they made their way into the tiny main room of the house, where John sat, his Bible open in his lap.
“Ruben!” he called out. “How are you, lad?”
“Very well, sir, thank you. And you?”
“Oh, I’m alright. So how are your plans for Africa coming together?”
“Actually, that’s why I’ve come, to tell the truth.”
“Oh?” John asked, closing his Bible and setting his full attention on the nervous young man. There was a delighted sparkle in his eyes, and Ruben wondered if he had some inkling of what he was about to ask.
“Forgive me for being so sudden, sir, but…I would like to ask your permission and blessing to have Patience’s hand in marriage.”
John let out a great bellow of a laugh, and Patience’s eyes opened wide. She was still standing beside Ruben, but she took a half-step back in shock.
“My boy,” the burly minister chuckled, “you may be a bit impulsive, but I admire your forthrightness. I’m sensing that you haven’t discussed this with Patience yet, am I right?”
Ruben glanced nervously over at Patience. “No, um…I guess I haven’t. I thought it would be proper to ask you first.”
“Well, you seem to have found a way to do both at once. What do you think, my dear?”
Patience was blushing, but the same bright smile remained fixed on her face. “Well…I…I don’t know. You need me here with you, Papa.”
John waved his hand dismissively. “I’ll miss you sorely, to be sure. But you know well enough that I’ll be able to get along alright on my own. The Lord will look after me.”
Her gaze flitted nervously over to Ruben. “Would you really have me for your wife?”
He grinned, giving his head a slight shake of absolute wonderment. “I’ve thought of little else since the day I met you, Patience. Would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
Her eyes began to brighten with tears of joy, and she glanced over to her father again.
John chuckled and sat back in his chair, beaming joyfully. “I’ve seen your heart, Ruben. You’re a good man. You’ll take care of her now, won’t you?”
“I will, sir. With all the strength and love I have.”
“Then you have my permission, my friend. And my blessing.”
Ruben drew a deep breath and looked back at Patience, taking her small hands in his own, the rough and callused hands of a workman. His ruddy face was bright with one silent, hopeful question as he awaited her response.
“I will be your wife, Ruben O’Connell.”
The laugh that broke out from him was an overflow of pure delight. “You are a gift of God’s grace to me, my love….But I want you to be sure. It will not be an easy life in Africa, and we may not have many years together.”
She smiled, a few of her tears now tracing gleaming trails down her cheeks. “I will go with you, Ruben. God has brought us together, and wherever He calls us we will go. That is enough for me.”
Ruben looked over at John again as the minister let loose a rumbling chuckle. “You needn’t worry about whether she’s ready to go to Africa, lad. She’s been speaking of nothing else ever since she heard you were going. It was all I could do to keep her from running to you on bended knee.”
Patience flushed crimson and cast a disapproving look at her father, much as a parent would give to a beloved but mischievous child.
Ruben turned to Patience again, the light of answered prayers and hopes burning in his eyes. “I love you, Patience Carmichael.”

~ ~ ~

Anna felt strangely confident. When she had arrived at the McNeill home she thought she might well break apart in the crash of her emotional breakers. To have Victor torn from her again and then suddenly returned in one day, together with the heady, confusing proposal from Elijah Green, was too much to process. She had nothing to do but wait. Her thoughts were turbulent, so much so that she wished she could somehow stop thinking about the whole situation. And Julius’ stories did just that for her.
She had never spent much time with the elderly servant before. But he was in all her early memories of visiting the McNeill home, a pleasant and loveable man who would always give her a brilliant smile and ask her for advice on horticulture. It was only much later, when she was in her teens, that she realized that he had always known more about gardening than she ever would, but that he had simply delighted in holding her attention for a few minutes.
He looked frail now, a spent and weary little man sitting on a low couch, much of his head and leg still swathed in bandages. But there was a radiant joy about him, and his smile never faded. She had always loved his smile—the proud white of his teeth against his wrinkled, coal-black skin. It was with joy he greeted her, and with joy that he began speaking of Africa. At first she was uncomfortable, but soon she found herself leaning forward in her seat, clinging to every word the old servant said. He spoke of his mother and her stories, his dreams of returning to his homeland with the Gospel, and his joy at seeing Victor preparing to go. And somewhere, in the midst of it all, Anna was able to forget her own heartache for a few moments.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting there, but when she heard the door open, she knew who was there. Julius stopped speaking, a peaceful smile on his lips as his gaze shifted to the doorway behind her. The dance of joy in his eyes seemed to brighten anew. Victor had returned.
Drawing in a breath to calm her nerves again, she stood up and slowly turned to face him. He was frozen in place, his weary face a mask of astonishment. She could see his pain in the way he looked at her, and her heart broke to know that he had shared her sorrow at their parting.
“Hello, Victor,” she said. “I…I hope you don’t mind my being here. I sent Mary around earlier, but you had already gone. Ruben said you might want to speak of me.”
His face brightened in understanding, and he began to smile. “Ruben said that? Well, that makes a bit more sense.”
Anna smiled nervously. “Maybe it was just another of his games. But I wanted to speak to you, too.”
He nodded gently, stepping into the room and moving nearer to where she stood. “Then speak, old friend.”
“Well, I don’t…I guess I didn’t quite know what I was going to say. But…well, Julius has been speaking to me. I was scared of losing you, Victor. I shouldn’t have left you up at the chapel that night. I’m sorry I ran away. I was afraid.”
“You were wise. Africa is a dangerous place. Part of me was glad to see you go.”
She bit her lower lip, dropping her gaze away from him. “You were glad?”
“Only to know that you would be safe, Anna. If I had brought you to Africa and you had perished there…I don’t think I could have lived with that.”
“Perhaps it was wise to human reason,” she admitted. “But the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.”
His eyes narrowed in thought. “What do you mean?”
“Julius here has been telling me about them—his people. Thousands upon thousands of people who have never had the chance to even hear about the very wellspring of life. Victor—I know now why you have to go to Africa. And in the same measure, I feel now that I must go, too. Refuse to marry me if you will, but don’t keep me from bearing the banner of Christ to those people. I want to go, Victor, and I want to be your friend even if I can’t be your wife. You needn’t worry about leading me into danger. I choose the danger.”
Victor regarded her quietly for a long moment, studying the face of the woman he had dreamt of so often, now opening her heart up before him and daring him to meet her there. And though he tried to fight the impulse, he couldn’t help but smile.
“But Anna,” he said softly, “what of your parents? They will never let you go.”
“They love me, Victor. Enough to let me go. It won’t be easy for them, but I know their hearts. My father might resist, but even he can be swayed. But please, tell me what you’re thinking. Is there room in your missionary company for a woman?”
Just as he opened his mouth to reply, they heard the great doors of the house crash open, and suddenly Ruben appeared in the doorway, his face flushed as he gasped for breath. At his side was Patience Carmichael, holding his hand and beaming a wide smile.
“Oh,” Ruben said as he caught sight of them. “You’re not done yet. We’ll wait outside.” And just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone again, and neither Anna nor Victor could resist a laugh.
“Well,” said Victor, turning his attention back to Anna, “if what I just saw is any indication, you won’t be the only woman going to Africa.”
Anna’s smile filled out like a blossom opening to the sun. She took a half-step forward, as if to embrace him, then hesitated. With a self-conscious grin of absolute delight, Victor knelt down before her, completely oblivious to the joystruck gaze of Julius at their side.
“Anna Nelson,” he breathed. “Will you be my wife?”
She simply nodded, struck wordless with rapture for a few moments. “Yes, I will, Victor,” she finally said.
Rising to his feet again, he took her in his arms and held her close. He wanted to speak to her, to tell her how happy he was, to put into words the floods of joy that coursed through his soul. But for a long moment he couldn’t speak, and when finally he did, it came out as a prayer.
“O God,” he whispered in their embrace, “thank you for Anna. Thank you for this gift. Lord Jesus, I don’t know what lies ahead of us. Walk with us through the storm, and we will be safe. But even if you take from us what is most precious to our hearts, even if we have to give it all up again for the sake of the call, we know You are faithful, and our trust is in You. Whatever lies before us on this toilsome road, it will be worth it all, if we are counted worthy to bear the glory of Your name.”
Anna raised her head slightly, until she could look into his eyes. “Amen,” she breathed, “and Amen.”

The End