Tag Archives: Faith

Joel – The Locust Plague

Still working on Chapter 10 of The Sky Below, hopefully next week. In the meantime I thought you might be interested in the text of my first sermon that I talked about yesterday. If you’d like to hear it instead, you can listen to the audio here. Comments welcome. Think this is something I should do again? All verses are from the NRSV (retrieved from the Bible Gateway).

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Introduction

Hear this, O Elders, give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

The Old Testament is fun isn’t it?

Today we continue in our summer series, exploring parts of the Bible we may not know very well. I hadn’t read Joel at all before three weeks ago, and I suspect I’m not the only one. But it’s an interesting book, one that can teach us about God’s forgiveness even when we repeatedly screw up. It forecasts Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all of us, and it makes the day of the Lord both present and yet to come.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be a blessing to you and everyone here. Amen.

First some Joel 101; Joel is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. We don’t know a whole lot about his history or his exact position, though there’s reason to believe he was a temple functionary of some kind given his concern over the daily liturgy. The book is primarily concerned with a terrible locust plague that has befallen the country and Joel’s call for a national day of prayer and lamentation, appealing to the Lord’s sovereignty to restore the land. The day of the Lord, God’s return in judgment, is central to Joel’s interpretation of the locust plague and events yet to come.

When we talk about the Old Testament there are a couple of things we need to figure out. When did these events take place? And how literally should we take what’s happening?

Joel presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to pinning a precise date on the book. There are arguments for putting the book as early as 900 BC or as late as 180 BC, and just as many for somewhere in the middle. Almost every argument in favor of one date has a counter-argument.

Some of the things commentators and biblical scholars consider when trying to place the book are the quotations from other prophets (Ezekiel and Amos primarily), the list of enemies of Israel singled out (Tyre, Sidon and Philistia), astronomical events like eclipses, apocalyptic language, references to the wall of Jerusalem, the list goes on.

Personally, in the case of Joel, I think it doesn’t matter. The story is self-contained and yet it follows a pattern in which the people of God turn away from him, letting other gods or cultures seep into their traditions, and then God has to bring them back.

As for how literally we should take the story here we have to be careful. There’s a temptation as modern readers of prophets to project our knowledge of the New Testament and modern understanding of the Bible and God onto these texts. We think they are speaking to us as much as they were to the prophet’s contemporaries. And there is something to be learned from the text as modern readers, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to my standing up here and talking about it. But we need to be careful how we read these books. The way things were understood by a person 2500 years ago (give or take a few centuries) are different than how we understand them today.

That being said, I’m pretty convinced a locust is a locust. More on this in a minute. I don’t have an outline, but if you’d like to follow along in the book, that’d be great.

The Locust Plague (Personal Level)

Chapters 1 and 2 of Joel follow a similar structure. Chapter 1 Verses 2-12 and Chapter 2 Verses 1-11 describe the devastation of the locust plague, and its particular impact on the people of God.

Joel wants his listeners to understand the magnitude of what is happening. He calls upon the Elders to affirm that this is the worst thing they’ve ever seen, something they’ll tell their grand-children and their great grand-children about. Believe it or not, attacks by plagues of locusts were not an uncommon occurrence. In fact locust swarms still devastate farmers in Africa today, and in 1954 a swarm of locusts flew from Northwest Africa to Great Britain.

Fun fact (from National Geographic): a desert locust swarm can be 460 square miles in size and pack 40 to 80 million locusts in every square mile. A locust eats its weight (about 2 grams) in plant vegetation in a day and eats much more when in a swarm. A swarm of the kind I’ve just described could eat 423 million pounds of vegetation in a day.

That sounds an awful lot like Biblical proportions to me.

And Joel’s locusts are very thorough. As we see in verse 4:

What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.

There’s some debate about whether the types of locusts refer to species of insect or different stages of development. NIV goes with stages, NRSV goes with types, one of the reasons I’m using the NRSV text today. But Joel’s point is that the devastation is absolute. Everything on the vine, in the field, in the orchard, and in the storeroom is gone.

Joel highlights the specific impact of this devastation to three categories of people: drunkards, priests and farmers. Through each he takes the opportunity to further expand on the character of the locusts’ destruction.

For the drunkard, the sweet wine has been stolen from his lips. Wine at that time was made by pressing grapes and sweet wine was made from the first juices of that process after being fermented briefly in the sun. The drunkard’s depravation and sobriety would have been fairly immediate. If wine is a kind of God given joy, than its depravation might cause one to weep and wail.

Joel definitely had his thesaurus out when writing these passages. There is continued repetition of core ideas, things Joel wants to emphasize. He wants his audience to pay attention. In verse six the locusts have the teeth of a lion and the fangs of a lioness. In verse 7 they use those teeth and fangs to lay waste, splinter, strip and throw down the vines, fig trees and bark from branches.

In verses 8-10 he turns to the priests:

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.

This is a particularly devastating form of grief. Ancient marriages were preceded by a betrothal that formed a deeper connection than what we’d call an engagement. Effectively the man and woman were husband and wife, but would not consummate that relationship until after the wedding ceremony. If a young man died before they could marry and conceive a son, the woman would still be considered a widow, and would mourn her husband and unborn son.

I think this analogy is interesting for a couple of reasons.

The devastation of grain and oil meant that the daily rituals of the temple could not proceed. Effectively the church was cut off from its relationship with God. I think we have no modern equivalent of this. Certainly in this family of believers we don’t have a set liturgy that would affect our experience of God one way or another. We gather together in this place and in our life groups, but even if this building were to burn to the ground, we would still be able to talk to God. We would still to be able to gather together as one body.

But I believe Joel’s choice of the betrothed virgin is not accidental. In Ephesians 5:22-25 and 2 Corinthians 11:2 we get a clearer idea of Jesus as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. We are, as a body of believers, pledged to Christ in anticipation of his return, the day of the Lord. The temple in Joel’s time is cut off from God. Imagine if we were cut off from Christ, from our salvation and ultimate destiny with him. I think at a minimum sackcloth would be called for.

Here we also see how this tragedy has affected the land. The people mourn and the land mourns.

The fields are devastated, the ground mourns, for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.

The health of the land is bound up in the Israelites understanding of God’s covenant with them. The state of creation matters. Our care for creation is an affirmation of what God has done for us. I think some of us have a temptation to separate God and our responsibilities from the state of the world. There might have been a temptation to dismiss the locust plague as not spiritually driven at all, just a freak of nature. But Joel seems pretty clear in later verses that the locusts are God’s army, acting with his will, and action must be taken as a community to save themselves and their covenant with God.

The third group Joel calls out is the farmers. The wheat and barley harvests are gone. Wheat would have been valuable not only to the grain offering, but it was more difficult to grow and so it was a source of pride. Barley was a staple for the poor, and a daily food source. Pomegranates, palm trees and apples, are all symbols of joy and God’s plenty withdrawn. Indeed Joel compares the withering of these fruits to the withering of joy.

So why does Joel mention these groups in specific? One thing I’ll hope you have noticed so far, Joel hasn’t expressly talked about the sin of anyone. We can easily speculate as to the drunkards’ sin. And the priests and the farmers may have succumbed to the perennial practice of Baal worship. Farmers would often pray to fertility idols for the health of their crops. And the priests would bear responsibility not only for their own sins, but the spiritual well-being of the people.

But again, Joel isn’t really talking about the sin of these groups. Fundamentally the purpose of Joel’s words is to bring people into a spirit of lamentation, repentance, and national prayer. Again and again he details the ways in which the locust plague has devastated the land, and the affect this has had on the nation’s ability to communicate with God, and to simply survive.

Do we do this when things go wrong? Do we focus on what needs to be done rather than point the finger? I think it’s natural for us to want to find someone to blame, if nothing else so we know that we aren’t the one at fault. But while we might want Joel to do some real calling out, on the drunkards for lewd and lascivious behavior, on the priests for hypocrisy and lack of spiritual leadership, and on the farmers for growing things besides just wheat and barley, Joel does none of this.

Joel wants to solve the crisis, and to give the people a full understanding of what the crisis means as we’ll see in Chapter 2.

The Locust Plague (Spiritual Implications)

Chapter 2 begins in much the same way as Chapter 1, though the language and scope of Joel’s description has shifted in tone. Why does Joel talk about the Locusts again? There are some commentators who believe that in Chapter 2 Joel isn’t talking about the locusts at all, but rather an invading army. There are a lot of allusions to an invading force, the sounding of an alarm, the rumbling of chariots, charging warriors filing in an unstoppable wave of destruction. But I think as we’ll see what Joel is really doing is providing spiritual context for the physical destruction he detailed in Chapter 1.

Verses 1 and 11 bookend the first section of Chapter 2 and are preceded by the lament from Chapter 1 Verse 15:

Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

Chapter 2 Verse 1:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near…

And in Verse 11:

Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?

Joel’s doing something unusual here. Often in the Minor Prophets, the day of the Lord is talked about in the context of judgment of Israel’s enemies, and indeed we see this in Chapter 3. But Joel is also very clear that God’s people will be held to account as well, for their actions in this specific crisis and in the time yet to come.

There are many parallels to the verses in Chapter 1. Joel emphasizes again the extraordinary nature of these events in Chapter 2 verse 2, a great and powerful army descends upon them the like of which has never been seen. He compares the locusts to charging war-horses in verse 4 and crackling like flames of fires in verse 5, similar to his comparison to lions in Chapter 1.

In verse 9 we get the same progression of destruction we got from Chapter 1 verse 4:

They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the house, they enter through the windows like a thief.

There is no place to hide from this army. They will get in every door, every window, every crack. They will destroy everything.

Joel does repeatedly refer to the locusts as an army, and they do show martial behavior.

Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through with weapons and are not halted.

I can certainly see how some commentators think this must refer to a human army and not an insect one. I think the weapons Joel is referring to here are those lions teeth and lionesses fangs, not insects carrying tiny spears, but what about the marching? Here’s the interesting thing: locusts do march when in swarms of higher density. They tend to keep to their own path, and don’t scuttle over top of one another, exactly as Joel describes.

No one’s quite sure how they do this, but there’s some thought it might have something to do with the same hormones that cause locusts to eat more in a swarm. It might defy conventional wisdom, but insects can move as an orderly army, and the moving of their millions of tiny wings might resemble the crackling of fire. Joel is certainly poetic at times, but I don’t think these descriptions are springing forth solely from his head without basis in what’s happening around him.

The same could be true in verse 10:

The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

Some scholars have taken this to mean an eclipse or astronomical event, placing Joel somewhere in the 300’s BC to line up with projected events. But there’s a simpler explanation. Swarms of locusts at high density can block out sunlight, even densities as low as 40-80 million per square mile. And there’s no reason to believe that God would have been limited to that number. Billions of locusts would have made it impossible to see the sun, the moon, or two feet in front of you.

But at the same time, it’s important to notice how Joel does want us to interpret these locusts. In verse 11:

The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command.

Joel is using apocalyptic language, correctly placing the locusts as an instrument of God’s judgment. Those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved, but for those who turn away from God there is darkness and gloom. I think Joel is speaking literally of the things they are seeing, and he’s placing them in a larger context.

I don’t know if the day of the Lord as Joel sees it would have played out to final judgment had the people not turned back to God. It’s apparent from verse 14 that he believes God will relent and bless them again if they turn back to him. The incident may have been a corrective, a way to shake up the complacency of a people who had turned away, and would turn away from God again.

What are the ways that we turn away from God? What idols do we worship? Money? Our jobs? Maybe just a fascination with things of the world? Do we place our faith in politics, in football teams, in King LeBron?

Sure it’s not Baal worship. We’re not actively praying to another god for one thing or another. We’re just relying on ourselves as the best judge of our time, our money, our work. God doesn’t tend to correct us with plagues of locusts any more, but maybe we need a kick in the shorts once in a while, something to force us to turn back to him, to rely on him like we know we should.

Joel’s Solution

So how does Joel suggest the nation regain God’s favor? In Chapter 1 Verses 13-14 Joel tells the people what they should do:

Pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God! … Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

The priests would probably already be wearing sackcloth, but to do so for an entire night signified an unusual level of grief. Sackcloth is made of black goat hair and would have been worn around the loins. It’s an outward symbol of sorrow and contrition, something it was probably unusually effective at producing as well as symbolizing.

He elaborates in Chapter 2 Verses 12-17, detailing more of the specific prayers and laments the people should offer to God, as well as highlighting a couple of particulars about the gathering. A couple of things we should notice about these verses.

In verse 13, Joel calls upon them to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Outward symbols of grief like the sackcloth and wailing were part of temple tradition at this time, but to Joel it was less important that they put on a good show, and more important that they cry out to God honestly and from their hearts.

Praying out loud to God in a group of people is something that has always been kind of difficult for me. I’m actually pretty comfortable coming up here and talking at you for 30 minutes, but the most awkward bits for me are the prayer at the start and the finish of the service. It’s why I had to write them. What Joel is calling for here is an extemporaneous expression of feeling, not a planned speech, though he does offer some guidance.

Again this assembly doesn’t concern itself with the guilt or sin of specific people. In verses 15-16 we see each group of people named, down to the children, babies, and recently married brides and bridegrooms who would traditionally be excused from temple services. The whole nation, the whole people of God, were to gather in the temple and appeal to the Lord, regardless of innocence.

And it’s in verse 17 where we might be tempted to wish Joel prescribed something different.

Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’

Here’s the part that sounds a little odd to the modern ear. The people are calling upon God to save them not because they’ve done something wrong, but to save his reputation amongst the other nations. To show his sovereignty and covenant care for his people.

Now it could be argued, somewhat correctly, that the wailing and rending of hearts did imply some amount of culpability, and understanding that God’s judgment in the form of the locust plague was deserved. But it still rings a little odd to not have some kind of direct repentance included in their appeal to God. We worshiped other Gods. We put the concerns of our daily lives ahead of what you want for us. We screwed up.

But this is where an ancient ear would hear this differently, and I actually think this has something to teach us moderns as well. If God did not deliver them from the plague it is very true that other nations would have interpreted this as a failure of their God, or even as reason to believe he does not exist. Again we would want them to see it at least in part as a failure of the people, but that’s our interpretation of events, not theirs.

And furthermore I think we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of God’s sovereignty, provision and glory. We’re very relational when it comes to God, and it is something that is encouraged by our accepting of Jesus Christ, and our New Testament understanding of salvation. But let’s not forget that God is Lord, and he still provides for us. We are as dependent on God for our daily bread as the people of Joel’s time.

God’s Response

After fasting, praying, lamenting and spending the night in sackcloth Joel conveys God’s response. In a nutshell God restores everything he has taken away and that Joel has taken the time to highlight. Grain, wine, and oil are being sent, the pastures are green, the trees and the vine bear fruit, and the rain restores the land. The years of plenty the locusts destroyed will be restored, and Israel shall no longer be a mockery among the nations.

Some things to notice about what God does. In verse 20 we see how he sweeps the locusts into the ocean, and fills the air with the stench of their rotting corpses. Don’t feel too bad for the locusts since they only live a few months anyway, and they got some really good eating along the way. Some commentators suggest that this is another way in which we see the Lord still holding things accountable for their actions even when those actions serve his purposes. Personally, I think it just wasn’t practical to keep a swarm of billions of locusts around. It’s a reassurance certainly that God won’t bring his army against them again, and God’s not shy about claiming responsibility for the locusts as we see in verse 25. But more than that I’m not sure is supported by the text.

God restores everything he has taken away, though not in an overly extravagant way. As we see in verse 23:

For he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.

There’s not an implication here that everything was magically restored. The storehouses that were falling into disrepair would probably still need to be fixed. The grain would still have to be harvested; the grass would need to regrow. God brought more rain than normal, but he didn’t snap his fingers and set everything right in one fell swoop. I’d imagine things were restored pretty quickly, as just watching the effect of good rain on my own garden can be quite astonishing. A tiny zucchini plant can grow leaves as wide as sails in just a few weeks. A good rain could very well restore their harvests to full yield. It’s still heavenly provision, but not outside the realm of the possible.

And God shows his promise for the future, both in the restoration of Israel’s reputation, but in its eventual salvation in the final day of the Lord. He also signals the outpouring of his holy spirit in Verses 28-29:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Not only does this provide a foreshadowing of the events of Acts, we also get a signal of God’s all-encompassing love for his people and for all who believe, regardless of age or station. This verse gives me the ability to share God’s word with all of you, and for all of us to understand scripture.

There’s a lot more about God’s provision and the final Day of Judgment in Chapter 3, more than we’ll have time for today. One thing I would caution for those of you who heard the beginning of Joel and wanted to see how it ends, remember Old Testament context. The enemies named in Chapter 3 were the enemies of Israel at that time, and could be more broadly understood as those who did not believe in the God of the Israelites. And some of these peoples did come to specific destruction, Sidon and Philistia, in the times of the Old Testament. While some of what Joel is talking about may refer to the Day of the Lord yet to come, many things he details have already occurred (as is the case with many things in Revelation by the way).

That said I don’t want you to dismiss these verses either. Chapter 3 Verse 21 (the end of the book) states:

I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

I think it is hard living in this nation, in this time, to think about people other than ourselves who might be guilty. We see other Christians who say that God hates Gays, or that Muslims are going to hell, and we think those guys are jerks. And they are. God is a God of love, even the God of Joel. He wanted the people to reach out to him. But what about those who don’t, or who even actively work against God? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I don’t think it’s a helpful attitude to say “well those people are going to hell.” Joel didn’t play the blame game, and neither should you. Rather we should think about the things we can do to bring people to God. God is patient, and so should we be. He wants to save everyone. The Day of the Lord is great and terrible, and it is near, but God still gives us a chance to do something about it.

What should we take away?

Some things I want to leave you with today. I think there’s a tendency to see the Old Testament in almost supernatural terms. God did speak directly with the people in columns of fire, but he also spoke through people. He brought a locust plague like none ever seen, and he restored it with early rainfall. The poetic verse Joel uses here is designed to evoke an emotional and spiritual response, to put the heart in a position toward repentance, but it is rooted in the physical, in the way things are actually happening. There is a wider spiritual context for the things that happen in the world, both in Joel’s time and today, and we shouldn’t see those old biblical times as completely separate from our own. Our experience of God can be just as direct as it was in those days. It isn’t just mysticism for people too simple to fully understand God without the Holy Spirit.

I also want us to remember that God is Lord, appropriate since Joel’s name means Yahweh is Lord. The relational approach to God is certainly appropriate, and healthy, both for our spiritual growth, and for illustrating the time we need to spend working on our relationship. But we should remember that God isn’t just our buddy. I think he is our buddy, but he’s also the awesome creator who made the world and provides us with everything, and who has the right to judge.

Finally I think we can see Joel as an example of God’s continuing capacity for forgiveness. Again we can see the God of the Old Testament as kinda judgy. He destroys sinful towns, floods the world, and throws a swarm of locusts at his people. But with Joel and all these Minor Prophets we see the ways in which the Lord wants to help to bring his people back to him. And when we turn back to him, everything is restored, and more.

We shouldn’t be complacent, our idol worship may not involve little statues any more, but there are still things in our lives that pull us away from God. But we can ask for forgiveness. It takes more than an outward display of theatrics, but a real change in our hearts. But if we believe that God is Lord, if we turn back to him, he will forgive us.

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Preacher Man

A week and a half ago I preached in my church for the first time. Our regular pastor is on sabbatical this summer, and a diverse preaching team is tackling lesser known or lesser read books of the Bible. Mine was Joel, a book I’d frankly never read three weeks before delivering a 25 minute talk about it. Now I’ve read it probably about 20 times and could quote you several passages from memory. One of the first things I did when preparing for Joel was to write a 43 line Python script pulling down 9 different translations from Bible Gateway and turning them into an eBook so I could compare. That web-scraping thing from yesterday at its most noble, maybe.

Writing a sermon was a very different kind of writing from what I’m used to. I’m comfortable talking in front of people. I’ve given presentations at work before, and I’ve sung, taught Sunday school and been the worship leader in my church in recent memory. But figuring out how many words I even needed to write to fill the time was a challenge (turns out for me about 5000 though some people think my delivery was a bit fast). I’ve generally contended that I’m a much better writer than an off-the-cuff speaker,but writing with the specific intention of reading aloud has a different flow. The writing must rise and fall with the rise and fall of your voice. Words that are perfectly fine in an essay on Joel can become unworkable on the tongue.

And writing a sermon should have some application to life, a point you’re trying to get across. I’m not so bad with the analysis and research bit, but this was the point that my wife kept asking me, and I was never sure I had a good answer for it until the night before the actual delivery.

And more than any other piece of writing this was something I was writing not just for myself, but for people to hear. It can be a strange thing to think about writing something as speaking for what God wants to say on a particular Sunday. You can dismiss it as putting too much stock in what people actually hear, and indeed the memory life for even a great sermon can be frighteningly short. But the writing isn’t just in your voice, it means something. This isn’t to say that I felt like I was taking God’s dictation. When God talks through people, they are still speaking with their voice, with their patterns, passions and priorities (something apparent in a prophet like Joel).

I wrote about half the sermon in a coffee shop, and the other half in our empty sanctuary, sometimes with the computer at the podium, typing changes as I practiced delivery. I still went through all the same things I do with a chapter of The Sky Below, research, rough drafts, revisions, cuts, new thoughts, and the eventual pressure of a deadline (one in this case which I couldn’t push). I listened to Moby and Olafur Arnalds which proved to be just as good at aiding the writing of scripture as they are most everything else. But I also had to think about how fast I was talking, waiting beats to emphasize something or let people laugh at the few funny points. I had to make sure I was looking at everyone as I talked while still keeping the text in front of me. And I had to figure out if I was going to stand or sit on a stool, and even how I was going to sit on that stool.

But this kind of writing is oddly energizing. First of all its probably one of the most immediate feedback mechanisms I’ve ever had (even more than blogging). People walk up, shake your hand, want to discuss the text, while your head is still spinning not sure if you even said everything you had written down. It was really interesting to go in deep on a passage, analyzing its structure, its history, its meaning. It was interesting to think about how people would hear the text 2500 years ago, and how they’d hear it that Sunday. And frankly it was interesting to be praying to God about what I was going to say. A lot of writing just happens for me, without a lot of thought about how it applies to the spiritual side. But during a lot of periods of writing this I felt unusually energized, words flying off my fingers. Maybe some of that was the thrill of trying something new. But then again … I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to try this again.

A common piece of writing advice is to write for yourself, not to worry about what others want you to say. But the more I think about it, I’m not sure if this is entirely true. You shouldn’t be trying to follow publishing trends, or writing what you think people want to hear, or what they want to read, what they can handle. But it can be really thrilling nonetheless to think about your audience, to think about how they might hear your words, and what it might inspire them to. You’re not writing or preaching to have people tell you you did a good job, you’re writing to get people to think, to convey God’s word, and to be more than just the words you put down on paper.

My inner censor thinks this sounds kinda hippy-dippy. But I’m just calling it like I see it. Writing that sermon was the most fun I’ve had writing in a while. Now I just gotta figure out how to do the same thing with everything I write.

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Happy 1st Anniversary of my 29th Birthday

I turned 30 last Saturday, and rang in the start of a new decade with burritos, a bottle of single-malt scotch, Rocky Patel cigars and the company of my friends and family.

A couple of questions asked with varying degrees of seriousness from my friend Brian and others is what wisdom I feel I’ve gained up to this point and what are my goals going forward.

Truthfully it’s just more of the same. I do want this to be the year that Surreality sees the light of day, and is something I can share with all of you. I’m considering the possibility of smaller versions of myself either through losing weight or other conventional means. I think it’s a good year to read more, including a pass at reading the Bible all the way through. And I’ve got about 8 books I want to write. Maybe I can get them all done or at least drafted by the time I’m 40, though by that time I bet there’ll be 10 more ideas.

I’m extraordinarily blessed. I have a wonderful wife of more than 6 years. I have good friends and family, and a great church home. I’m curious about the world and the kind of stories I can tell, and I have a dog and cat who provide endless amusement and companionship (well, the dog does anyway). I have a home, and a big yard where I can enjoy my wife’s handiwork. I have an office where I can be surrounded by books, and still be able to carry a library with me in my pocket. Life’s pretty good.

Once nice thing is that I might finally get people to stop looking at me and be surprised that I’m in my 20’s. I don’t know if this means I’ve looked 30 or maybe even 40 for years, but it is nice to be a little more settled without being rigid. I do feel like I have a slightly better idea of what 40 will look like and maybe even 50. Not physically yet, but those people are feeling less like senpai’s and more like peers.

Like all adult birthdays this feels like both a milestone and just another day. It’ll probably take me a while to even think of myself as a 30-something, though in some ways I’ve been doing it for a while. And I had my first senior moment last week (well actually probably not the first). I put toothpaste on my toothbrush, and then raised the brush to comb my hair. I stopped myself maybe an inch from my head.

It’s all downhill from there.

Actually, I can’t wait for another day. Especially when that day includes leftover burrito fixings.

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The Sky Below (Chapter Six)

Well, it’s been a few weeks but the new chapter is finally here. If you’re wondering what the heck this story is all about, you can start from the beginning here, or download the whole book including the new chapter here. As always you can get to the main landing page for this book by clicking the cover on the right, or by clicking here.

WARNING: This chapter contains some offensive language and violence. For more information see last week’s post.

Can’t remember what last happened with our baseball player or the good reverend? Check out the second half of Chapter 3 for where we left Reverend Marcado, and check in with Eddie in Chapter 4.

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CHAPTER SIX

The basement was hardly as Reverend Marcado remembered it, to the point he hadn’t been entirely sure it was there. Though he was at the church daily, most of his time was spent either in the sanctuary or his office. The AA meetings he attended once a week used to meet down there, but that was at least a decade before his time. This particular church basement was like any other, relics of decades of church plays scattered amongst old choir robes and stacks of retired hymnals and Bibles, all covered in a thin layer of dust. The unceremonious flipping of ceiling and floor had littered their path with all sorts of random fabric, torn pages, and broken props.

He had no idea where he should go next. The basement was a labyrinth, as most church basements are. Somewhere would be a service closet that should have the sewer access that was their next logical step, but Marcado suspected it would take hours of wandering randomly through these corridors to find it. Marcado and his young companion walked slowly and silently, the younger man shuffling in a daze, the older lost in thought. Disasters were like that. In the moment things are moving too quickly for you to do anything but act on instinct. But after the immediate moment of danger there is so much time and silence.

Marcado was thinking about his wife and daughters, something he hadn’t had time to do while he was counseling this young man. The kid at least had the certainty that his girlfriend was dead and maybe in a little while the comfort that there was nothing he could have done about it. Marcado was not so fortunate. He didn’t know if he should be mourning his family, or desperately trying to find them.

Like most professional men, Marcado saw the world and what was happening in it largely in terms of its relation to himself. He was going to be at the church until the late afternoon, so he didn’t need to remember the movements of his wife or his children unless it directly affected him. What did it matter if his wife went to the store or the mall, or if she had just stayed home as long as he knew where they’d be when he got home?

His children’s lives were fairly regimented between school and extra-curricular activities, but what if one of them had become sick during the night and stayed home? He hadn’t seen them since about 9pm last night. In the early morning he’d made coffee for himself, eaten breakfast alone, and left without waking anyone, not even turning a light on in the kitchen, like a thief in the night.

If his wife hadn’t left the house then she might already be dead. The foundations of this old church were already beginning to creak ominously. A two-story home, even one with a basement, wouldn’t hold up long under these conditions. Even if she had wedged herself in the crawlspace, she would probably only have extended her life by a couple of hours.

His eye caught the open page of one of the fallen hymnals and he chuckled bitterly to himself. The foundations of faith may be built on the word of God, but even stone buried into bedrock wouldn’t hold against these forces for long.

His children were probably in school and safe in the care of others. They might even have an easier time getting into the sewers than he was having in this maze of a basement. If his wife … If Rachel … had gone out she might be safe as well.

But what if they were dead and he was left alive? What was he supposed to do then? What were any of them supposed to do? Marcado had never contemplated suicide, but there were times in his life when he hadn’t been particularly interested in living. There’s a hole in everyone that needs to be filled with something for us to be complete. Marcado had tried the bottle first, and when that finally didn’t work he tried God. God gave him a wife, a family and a purpose, and now he’d taken it all away.

Some people would consider it blasphemous to be angry with God. Everything that happens is part of his plan, meaning that everything terrible happens for a reason. Some people are comforted by the notion that bad things are either part of a divine plan, or punishment for sin. Marcado had a different view. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen in the world, he just makes the best of a lot of bad situations, starting with us. But sometimes it was okay to be pissed off at God for not stepping in sooner. God wanted to have a relationship with his creation, and people in relationships fight.

So how was God going to make the best of this bad situation? Was Marcado supposed to save this unbelieving kid, all while skirting around the issue of his girlfriend having died without faith? What kind of salvation did he exactly have to offer? The world seemed to be operating on Old Testament logic again.

“I thought only Catholics used the real thing,” the young man said abruptly.

“Excuse me?” Marcado said, shaking his head out of a thick fog.

“This,” the young man said, holding up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. “Must’ve survived the fall by landing on someone’s old vestments.”

Marcado scanned the small pantry and found several other bottles and a jagged corkscrew dangling from the wall. Like everything else in the basement, this little corner had been long forgotten.

The young man frowned, “I probably can’t drink any of these, can I?”

Marcado shook his head, “That’d only be a problem if the bottle was specifically blessed, which typically doesn’t happen until shortly before the service. And we haven’t used real wine for communion in all of the years I’ve been preaching here. They’re probably older than you are.”

“Hey, anything’s good as long as it’s not Manischewitz,” the young man exclaimed.

Marcado chuckled, “People still drink that stuff?”

The young man nodded, “Mostly college students trying to show a sophisticated side on an unsophisticated dollar. Better than a 36 pack of Nattie light I suppose.”

Marcado had been more of a whiskey man himself, but like all good alcoholics he’d known times of not being choosy. Without realizing it, he noticed he’d been holding one of the bottles in his left hand, finding the familiar weight an odd comfort.

“What d’ya say rev? A toast to the end of the world?”

Leaving aside the fact he hadn’t had a drink in eight years, he didn’t think it was the best idea to dull his senses when they were having a hard enough time finding solid ground. Even when the rest of the world was falling away, sobriety and faith were things he could hold onto.

“Yeah,” Marcado nodded, “I could use a drink right about now.”

* * *

“Ya think ‘cause this jersey has my number on it, I’m entitled to it, right?” Franklin asked as he pulled hangers off a flipped circular rack.

“You want the child sizes,” Conesta said. “They’re in the corner behind the t-ball sets.”

“Fuck you,” Franklin said casually as he kept flipping through. “Hey, Eddie! I think I found one of yours.”

He held the shirt up and examined the tag, “You’re in luck, Eddie. It’s marked down 95% clearance so it practically isn’t even stealing.”

“Knock it off, Franklin,” Manny said impatiently. Franklin just kept chuckling at his own joke.

“We’re not here to loot,” Stankowsky interjected. “A souvenir shop is not a place to find food.”

“Not unless you like big league chew,” Conesta quipped.

Franklin stuck out his tongue, “That stuff’s worse than chewing on toe-jam. Where do they get off claiming that stuff tastes like grape?”

“I’m sure there are trace amounts of grape, and 79% used shoe leather,” Conesta retorted.

Stankowsky just shook his head, “Come on, there’s a concession stand just around the bend.”

Franklin picked up the bat he’d leaned against the rack, but not before stuffing a couple of the jerseys into his bag. He tossed Eddie the jersey he’d found, laughing and patting him on the shoulder as he passed. Eddie rolled the jersey around his hand before letting it fall in a tight crumple.

The concession stand was a mess. Popcorn from oversized poppers had spilled all over the floor, mixing with a noxious looking yellow substance. Conesta picked his shoe up in disgust. “What the hell is this stuff?”

“Nacho cheese,” Eddie offered.

“Yuck! Better it’s on the floor. That stuff always tasted like warm jizz anyway,” Conesta said, scraping his shoe against the pricing board.

“And you know this from personal experience?” Franklin asked.

Eddie cracked a smile. He didn’t like vulgar humor especially, but right now it was just good to get a laugh from something.

The pricing sign was soon torn away from the ceiling and tossed casually on top of the layer of nacho cheese and popcorn. The plastic creaked with every step as they piled behind the counter. Most of the hot dogs had been in sealed steamer containers. Eddie wasn’t too sure how long the dogs had been soaking in their own juices, but he was too hungry to care. He cracked one of the latched doors, letting the juice and hot steam flow out onto the floor and mix with rest of the mysterious liquids at their feet.

Once the stream had stopped, he slid a dog out into his palm and latched the door shut again. The dog tasted thin and limp, but it sat somewhat satisfactorily inside his stomach. The rest of the guys started taking dogs out for themselves, finally dumping the contents into a flipped over baseball cap.

Everyone ate with abandon, with no thought to rationing or to the limits of their stomachs. With no refrigeration the dogs would spoil in half a day anyway, so it was better to eat what they could now. It was the best meal any of them were going to have for a while.

They hadn’t given any particular thought to their surroundings, or to the noise they were making. Most of them had dropped their bats against the back wall, far out of reach. When a quiet voice asked them for a hot dog they didn’t even hear it at first.

The gunshot that followed was heard by all.

A young teenager, not older than 15 or 16 was holding a pistol unsteadily in their direction. His first shot had embedded itself in the wall about six inches from Franklin’s head. Rather than being scared, or grateful for being alive, Franklin was furious.

“You nearly killed me, you little shit!” Franklin spat.

The kid’s aim was shaky; the gun was twitching to the side every few seconds from trembling hands. An unlucky spasm might cause the gun to go off again.

“I said I want a hot dog,” the kid replied with surprising bravado, even for someone holding a gun.

“Where the fuck did you get the balls to fire that thing anyway, cause yours certainly haven’t dropped!”

Franklin had more to say but Belanchek put up an arm to silence him. “It’s alright, there’s plenty for everyone.”

“The hell there is!” Franklin said, “Who’s he to threaten us?”

“He’s not threatening,” Belanchek said calmly, “he asked nicely before and just lost his patience a bit. Isn’t that right son?”

The young man’s grip was loosening slightly, but Eddie could see the tension in his shoulders. Unless the kid had somehow snuck the gun past security, there was only one way he could have his hands on one now. A closer glance at the kid’s shirt and knuckles gave some hint as to how he had come by the weapon.

“My sister’s hurt. She needs something to keep her strength up. I just need some food and maybe a little water so I can help her.”

“Bullshit,” Franklin said, “We’re supposed to buy whatever sob story you make up just because you’re waving a gun in our faces.”

The kid lowered his gun a few inches, “I’m sorry about that. I just … look she’s really hurt.”

“I bet you don’t even have a sister. I bet you just want to stuff your face, you fat fuck,” Franklin said.

The kid’s grip tightened again, “Are you gonna help me or not?”

“You want a hot dog so bad? How about you suck my….” Franklin was cut-off mid-sentence by the top of his head splattering against the wall. He’d had more colorful things to say, but at least he’d gotten his general point across before sliding into a lifeless heap amidst the hot dog juices.

Conesta screamed in anger and grabbed the kid’s arm. The gun fired wildly, ricocheting off the metal grill and refrigerator before striking Stankowsky in the arm. Belanchek stepped forward and chopped down hard with his right hand into the back of the kid’s elbow, loosening his grip and sending the gun clattering to the ceiling.

Stankowsky was running on adrenaline, not even noticing the new hole in his arm as he picked up a bat. He held the bat by the middle and swung wildly at the boy’s ribs. The young man crashed into Conesta under the force of the new onslaught. Conesta managed to roll out from under the kid while Stankowsky took a few steps forward to stand over him. The boy lifted his left arm to protect himself, which Stankowsky swiftly broke with his next swing.

The blows fell quickly after that, alternating between the ribs, knees and any available soft tissue. Conesta had regained his feet and picked up his own bat, joining in on the festivities by shattering the boy’s right collarbone before swinging the bat down hard on his throat.

Belanchek pushed Conesta back but the damage had been done. His last blow had collapsed the kid’s windpipe. His eyes bulged from lack of air and he convulsed violently, each jolt of pain from his freshly broken bones sending him into a new fit of spasms.

Eddie picked up the gun, the grip sticky with yellow slime. He raised his arm calmly, and without a word fired three rounds into the kid’s chest. With a final spasm the kid kicked up and collapsed back, dead.

Eddie handed the gun to Manny and quietly took the bat from Stankowsky. The ball in Stankowsky’s throat looked like it was about to burst its way out. He just kept staring blankly at the slowly growing pool of blood as it started to mix and swirl with the yellow liquid on the floor. As he kept staring, Eddie pulled one of the jerseys out of Franklin’s bag, tore a section out of the middle, and started to dress Stan’s arm.

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All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Writing for the space you’re in

One of the perks of being the church secretary’s husband, and one of the sound technician team, is access to the church as the occasional writing getaway. I usually write in the sanctuary, often sitting behind my usual post in the sound booth or at one of the back tables. We’re just one of your local neighborhood churches, so it’s not like I’m writing under stained glass or amongst wood paneling or anything, but it is still a sacred space.

Writing alone in a church has its advantages. I never have to worry about leaving my laptop alone when I have to go to the bathroom (a problem for the writing session of more than a couple of hours). I can play my music as loud as I want, and people won’t be around to mind if I decide to sing a few bars to take advantage of the acoustics (a perk I don’t get even in my own home). Sure it can get a little creepy at night once I turn all the lights out, but that’s been fading as I get a different kind of familiarity with the place as somewhere more than just where I go Sunday mornings.

Ironically I was working on a section of The Sky Below dealing with my pastor character, who is going through his own crisis of faith during a disaster. As a writer generally you are always a bit concerned that a character’s views might come across as your own. After all, you thought of what was in a character’s head, so on some level you must believe what they’re saying. In practice, this is often true, but as you get better as a writer it should become less and less true. Some of the things my reverend in the story thinks match my own experiences of questioning faith at times, and how to manage feelings and God, and others are invented for the character as he is.

You might think a church is an odd place for someone to write about someone questioning their faith. I’d say that puts a little too much specific reverence into the building, when the church is really the people who fill it, and their brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Also, it’s not like God is the eye of Sauron and he can only see me when I’m holding a glowing orb or when I’m standing in his house. If you have faith, then God knowing what you’re thinking, and writing at all times is kind of part of the deal.

Weirdly, the church is a particularly good place to work, and not just because it’s free of a lot of the distractions that a Starbucks next to Half Price Books has. A good church is a place for introspection and reflection, of prayer and worship and thought. The traits necessary for a good experience of church are the same as those necessary for a good experience of writing (at least in my opinion). You can’t write something thoughtful without reflection, and as someone who believes that using talent can be a form of worship, perfecting your craft can be a way of glorifying God, even if a particular passage isn’t so glorious.

I write pretty much anywhere, usually without much thought to the space I’m in beyond the basic creature comforts. But sometimes it can be restorative to write in a specific place, one conducive to the specific craft of writing.

So what’s the place you write where you fell most in tune with what you’re writing? How about other kinds of art?

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Filed under Faith + Life, Writing

The Sky Below (Chapter Three)

It’s Thursday and you know what that means, you have a one in two shot of a new chapter of The Sky Below. In case you missed the first couple of chapters of our serialized story, I’ve put up a new landing page that has all the links you’ll need. And if you look to your right you’ll see the new cover. Neat, huh? Anyway, hope you enjoy this chapter and as always keep the comments coming. ~BTW

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CHAPTER THREE

Bethany woke to throbbing pain from her right hand. The skin was pink and wet, and had the faint aroma of the coffee she’d been holding moments before. The immediate scalding heat had subsided, leaving a dull ache and a slightly itchy sensation, making Bethany wonder exactly how long she’d been unconscious. Still, that question could wait until her more immediate needs were met: a fresh cup of coffee and something cool for her hand.

Bethany recalled a bathroom just around the corner and pushed down with her good hand to get herself up. The floor felt rough and dusty. She wondered idly if her donut was still on the counter or if it had fallen off during … whatever had happened.  Sure enough, there was a little paper wrapper on the floor with the edge of a maple donut creeping out of it. As she bent down to pick it up, she noticed that the counter was no longer in front of her.

The Latina woman and another teenage employee were sprawled out on the floor where the counter should have been.  Bethany took a tentative step forward, then stepped back as the woman groaned.

“Are you alright?” Bethany asked.

The woman was still dazed, her eyes squinting as she regained focus. “I think so. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Bethany replied. “Do you have any bottled water back there? I spilled coffee on my hand.”

Bethany put out an arm which the woman waved off. Once the woman had righted herself she stood on her tiptoes to look inside the little refrigerator behind the counter, which was now above her head. “All I have is milk and orange juice.”

“Probably the milk,” Bethany said. “How much do I owe you?”

The woman fixed her with a look, then said flatly, “No charge.”

Bethany took the small carton and held it against her hand. It felt a little better, but the cardboard didn’t feel very cold against her skin. She sighed and pushed the carton open, pouring out the liquid slowly over the back of her hand. She winced briefly from the cold, then relaxed as her fingers loosened and the skin felt less chapped.

“Throw on a little fresh cinnamon and I’ve basically made a latté on my hand,” Bethany said. The woman just stared at her. Finally Bethany said, “Thanks. That feels a lot better.”

The Latina woman nodded, then turned to wake up her co-worker, who was drooling into a pile of spilled cup-holders. Suddenly the thought of eating her donut in front of these people didn’t seem so appealing. Bethany reached into her coat pocket to stash the wrapper when she noticed a familiar bump was missing.

“Dammit,” Bethany hissed softly. Looking down she saw nothing other than milk-stained shoes. She looked behind her and caught a glimpse of a purple phone case against the far wall. She took an unsteady step toward the phone, then froze as the floor creaked beneath her. Suddenly heels didn’t feel like such a good idea.

Cautiously she slipped her feet out of her shoes, then knelt slowly to pick them up, dangling them from her left hand. Given the state of her hair and clothes she looked like a woman walking home from a one night stand, with the added humiliation of milk dripping from her hand and shoes. The floor creaked with every step but at least it didn’t feel like it was going to buckle anymore. Within a few seconds she was across the alcove to where her phone had slid.

The protective case had broken open but the phone seemed relatively intact. She had a couple of missed calls from her sister but no messages. This was pretty typical; Grace was the kind of person to keep calling until you picked up rather than leave a message. When she wanted your attention she had to get it right then, though the last call was from about ten minutes ago. Bethany frowned; it wasn’t like Grace to give up like that.

Reluctantly, she pressed down the call button. The phone didn’t even ring once before she got the three-tone alert message.

“We’re sorry, but we cannot place your call as dialed. Our lines are over capacity at the moment. Please hang up and place your call again later.”

“Probably everyone’s calling each other trying to figure out what’s going on,” the donut woman shouted.

Bethany frowned again, “Even if there was some kind of accident in the mall it wouldn’t have jammed up every line!”

“Lady, we’re upside-down. I think that’s enough.”

Bethany looked up toward the “ceiling” and saw the familiar tile of the floor. The “floor” beneath her feet was completely flat, except for a couple of diamond shaped bumps that looked a hell of a lot like light fixtures.

“That’s impossible,” she gasped.

“You’d think so, but here we are.” The woman shrugged. “Listen, can you help me with Jared here? I think he might have broken his ankle.”

“I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Bethany said, not really hearing her.

“Hey, maybe so, but until you wake up I could really use a hand here.”

Bethany shook her head clear and walked back over. Jared was still in a haze, which was probably just as well given the angle of his foot. Bethany put a hand under his arm, and grimaced at the moisture underneath. The woman shot her a grin, “Yeah, I know. Try standing next to him for 12 hours on end.”

“Where do we put him?” Bethany asked, pulling upward. The two women linked their arms trying to put most of Jared’s weight on his back and under his thighs, though his feet still bumped into the floor every couple of steps.

“We’ve got a couple of chairs in the office in the back, assuming they weren’t bolted to the floor.”

The back area was dark, the floor littered with all sorts of dry ingredients, sugar and flour and cinnamon, floating a few inches off the floor in a thin mist. Bethany could already feel a coating forming around her ankles and feet.

They found a yellow plastic chair that looked like it had been taken from a 70s classroom and kicked it upright. Jared let out a little yelp as they dropped him down, then slumped slightly forward, threatening to fall back onto the floor. The woman shuffled over to the other side of the office and found another chair. She put it under Jared’s left leg and he leaned back, his head falling backwards to the right.

The woman leaned against the back wall to catch her breath and Bethany did the same, “What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“Bethany, and you’re … Sofia, right?”

“Got that from my name tag and everything, right?”

Bethany blushed, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It’s actually Claudia, but I got sick of people pronouncing it wrong. Clow-dia not Claw-dia.” Claudia breathed out heavily, “Hey. You still got that donut?”

Bethany chuckled, “It’s been on the floor.”

“Actually I think it’s the ceiling. How ‘bout you give me half in return for that milk?”

Bethany took out the paper she’d tucked in her jacket and tore the donut in two. “Deal.”

* * *

“Grab my hand!” Reverend Marcado shouted as he leaned down toward the balcony railing.

Marcado had wrapped his legs around one of the wood paneled columns which suddenly felt a whole lot less solid with the weight of the balcony pulling on it instead of pushing down. Hymnals and Bibles were raining down around him as they slipped out of the pews, forming blue-bound piles on the high curved ceiling.

The young man below him was terrified, and had wrapped both arms and legs around the flat metal of the railing. Already Marcado could tell that railing wasn’t going to hold his weight forever, despite the 200-year old craftsmanship of the sanctuary.

“It’s alright,” he said calmly. “I’ve got you, and the Lord’s got us both.”

The young man leaned as if to move, then whimpered and held the railing more tightly as his ball-cap fell off his head.

“Son,” Marcado said more firmly, “I know it’s scary, but you’ve got to climb.”

The young man leaned out again, still leaving his legs wrapped around the railing. As he stretched he was able to get a few fingers under the curved inset of the panel above. Marcado stretched down and this time he could just barely brush the tips of his fingers against the young man’s hand.

“Just a little bit more,” Marcado encouraged. “You’re doing fine.”

The young man grabbed the U-shaped arch of the trim and pushed up, reaching with his left arm to grasp one of the small wooden balusters. He let his right hand go and pulled upward, swinging his legs out and hanging by one arm for a few terrifying seconds before Marcado grabbed him. The baluster in his left hand pulled out from the railing and dropped out of his hand, making a low clattering as it hit the ceiling.

Marcado grunted as the man’s full weight pulled down on his arm. He began tugging with his legs, hoping the weight wouldn’t pull the column out like the baluster. The young man grabbed Marcado’s arm with both hands, the weight easing as the kid got a hand up on the ceiling at the base of the balcony. Within another few seconds he had a leg up and soon was lying flat on his belly. Marcado dangled over the edge till the kid collected his wits enough to grab his arm and spin him around the column.

Both men lay flat for a few minutes catching their breath. The adrenaline was already starting to wear off, and Marcado was wishing he’d spent a few more evenings playing in the church basketball league. The young man looked to be in his late twenties, wearing a large and garish Chief Wahoo t-shirt. Most of the fans in the city had long ago abandoned wearing that mascot, at least in public, preferring the newer letter styled jersey, or if they liked the tradition at least keeping the Indian small and on their arm. It was the out of towners who still got a kick out of the grinning chief.

“Reverend, look!” the young man shouted, pointing downward. He’d crawled to the edge of the balcony and was looking toward the organ. Below them, pairs of curved wooden bracers stood atop a wooden floor, with circular vents in between each pair. Further down, stained glass windows glowed brightly from the sun outside.

‘Whatever has happened hasn’t spoiled the sky at least,’ Marcado thought.

On the floor near the organ, a young woman lay sprawled over one of the curved bracers. She was breathing slowly, her long black hair fanning out behind her head like a halo. Her eyes were open but unfocused, looking at nothing in particular.

“We’ve got to do something,” the young man said, already looking around for something to lower himself down.

From twenty-some feet above Marcado could see the small pool of blood forming behind her head. That she’d survived the fall was something of a miracle, if a cruel one. Her body was bent and broken, her breathing raspy and pained. Her face was a cloud, unable to speak even if her lungs would allow it, on the verge of seeing a divine mystery Marcado had only glimpsed from afar.

“Don’t just sit there, we’ve got to help her,” the young man’s voice was growing all the more urgent. There was no rope to be found, nothing aside from a few domed glass hanging lights now lying flat on the ceiling floor. The cords might lower them down a few feet, assuming they could even hold their weight. Marcado put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“We can’t reach her, not without falling ourselves,” he said gently.

“But you’re a man of God, you’re supposed to help people aren’t you?” the young man said angrily, pushing Marcado’s arm away.

“I am going to help her,” Marcado said, “I’m going to pray.”

“What’s that going to do? We’ve got to get her up here!” The young man said, tears starting to form around his eyes. “We can just leave her!”

“Who is she, son?”

“What?”

“What’s her name?” Marcado asked calmly.

“Stacey,” the young man said, tears running down his face in earnest now.

“You care about her a great deal, don’t you?”

The young man looked down at his feet, “She’s my girlfriend, about six months now. We just moved in together about a month ago.”

“Alright, you want to help her don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said weakly.

“Just look at her.”

The young man took a tentative crawl toward the edge. His eagerness from a few moments prior replaced by fear, not of heights or the ceiling collapsing from beneath him, but of the reality he knew lay just below him.

“She’s dying, son, probably only a few minutes now.”

The young man backed slowly away from the edge. Marcado stopped him gently and the young man’s voice cracked as he spoke. “She was just a few feet in front of me. If only I’d been closer I’d…”

“I know,” Marcado said. “She’s in God’s hands now but we can still pray for her.”

“But we’re not believers, Reverend,” the young man said. “Doesn’t that mean you think she’s going to go to hell or something?”

Marcado shook his head. “You really think that’s how it works? I don’t think God is as cruel as men make him out to be. He’ll take care of her.”

The young man wiped his tears off with a sleeve and bowed his head. Marcado closed his eyes. After a brief prayer he opened them again and stared at the front of the sanctuary. Everything loose had fallen toward the ceiling, including a grand piano which had landed with its legs sticking in the air like a wounded animal. Somehow the organ had managed to maintain its shape, with just a few of the over three thousand pipes slipping out of their moorings. The chandeliers, on the other hand, had all swung toward the center of the room; the glass from each of the cylindrical lights shattered and strewn in a glistening carpet on the ceiling. The Bible he read from every Sunday morning and the candles he lit were all gone. All of the familiar rituals and objects that made this place his home as much as God’s were falling away.

The truth was he didn’t know what God had in store for Stacey or for any of them. He’d seen people die before, around the world and right in front of him. But none of that had felt like God’s doing, just man’s nature at its most extreme and perverse. But flipping a church upside-down didn’t feel like the work of man. God had killed all but a few people in a boat when he brought terrible floods. He said he’d never do it again, but maybe he only meant the rain.

Marcado turned back toward the young man who was still kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed. “Come on. We’ve got to get moving. If we get into the basement, we might at least stand a chance.”

The young man opened his eyes and nodded. The two men turned and crawled away from the edge, neither looking back.

——————————-

All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.

by-nc-nd

Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube

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Filed under Writing

Putting my imagination to work

This post, and the one following it on Going Deeper at 12:45, are part of a mini two-part series exploring Christianity and imagination. What does it mean to have a Christian imagination? What part does imagination play in our lives and in our faith? Since we’re over here at Ben Trube, Writer this morning, let’s talk about the kind of imagination I deal with on pretty much a day to day basis, telling stories.

Imagination is a key component of writing. My pastor defines imagination as the ability to see a reality different from the one we can observe. That pretty much sums up writing, creating characters, situations, even settings that have no equivalent in the real world. For writing imagination takes two very different forms. The first is inspiration, my first glimpse of the world or story I’m trying to create. This often comes from my mind wandering, or connecting two disparate thoughts from days apart. The second is application and definition, taking scenes and connecting them together, further defining character traits and arcs. One is hazy like a dream, the other is very much like reality and requires a similar level of detail.

You might say the inspiration phase is a lot like daydreaming. For me it can really happen anytime, though it is more likely in periods of repetitive activity, like my daily commute or the shower. One thought leads to another leads to another. A phrase that was used a lot in the Bible studies I was a member of in college was “thought life”. In that case it primarily was referring to sexuality, to lustful thoughts from a idle mind. But the idea can apply to any thought that takes our mind off God, off the way he’d like us to live, to look at the world.

But I’ve never been really able to look at my “thought life” in such a fearful way. I’m aware of the lustful aspects of myself, as I trust every man is, but when I’m trying to think of a good story, I don’t immediately think about whether it is in keeping with glorifying God. Here’s how I look at it, having the thought is not such a bad thing, but committing certain ideas to paper is something else entirely.

I think even authors who don’t have an angel sitting on their shoulder think about this kind of thing. Do I really want this idea to be associated with my body of work? What kind of impact will my words have on the thoughts and minds of others? We’re all capable of coming up with some truly wonderful, and truly terrible ideas. Having bad ideas is natural, but engaging with them may not be. The more time we spend with an idea, the more it comes to dominate our way of thinking. This can happen for good ideas and for bad. A good idea gives birth to the next idea and the next.

I don’t think of my writing as having a specific “missional” aspect. Something about applying that word to my work feels unnatural, forced and tacky. The purpose of my work, other than to entertain, is to explore if for no one else but myself some of the mysteries of life, and some of the specific technological and sociological challenges we’ll face in the coming decades.

Boy that sounds lofty!

Okay, I’ll say it better. I think about a lot of things. I read technology magazines, listen to the news, read fiction, play bad video games and read graphic novels. I like everybody else am trying to figure out how to be a good husband, a good parent, a good adult, and yes a writer people actually want to read. Sometimes exploring these ideas in stories helps me. And sometimes I write something down just to riff (like the story I’m planning for Jo’s Bradbury 52 (a ghost, a school and a breakfast indeed)).

As I talked about in one of my early posts in this blog, I try to write from a Christian viewpoint, but I’m not a Christian writer. I try to write about life as I see it, and a little bit of how it can be. Right now I’ve got a main character who is suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress (a condition I gave him after a couple of revisions 🙂 ). Throughout this book, and into the next one I’m trying to explore aspects of denial, trauma, vengeance, justice, friendship and yes God. This means I have to be okay with my character starting in a messy place, and ending in maybe a better one that takes a while and several different roads to get to. The temptation is to fix everything too quickly, to not give proper weight to circumstances and feelings. As a writer you can throw a character into a situation, and then not be sure you should have, using the next chapters to try to pull him out. That wouldn’t do the story justice, though, and it doesn’t fit with my experience of life or of God.

Christianity is not a quick fix. It’s not an “accept Jesus and everything will always be awesome” kind of deal. It takes work. I’m all for being able to picture eternal life, a new heaven and a new earth and a new body. Faith takes imagination. But in my experience you also have to be able to relate to people’s needs as they are, the things they worry about on a day to day basis. And maybe because I’m a futuristic science-fiction writer, get them thinking about a few things they might be dealing with in the future.

Imagination is an essential tool of the writer. It’s a weapon that can be used well or haphazardly. Imagination doesn’t do us much good without something to steer it, otherwise all stories would be a series of random thoughts and images (not unlike this blog post 🙂 ).

How do you think about your imagination?

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Filed under Faith + Life, Writing