Venom

Your lips, O my spouse,
Drip as the honeycomb;
Honey and milk are under your tongue;
And the fragrance of your garments
Is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
                  Song of Songs 4:11

There’s a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker, a drawing of two men seated, one behind and the other in front of a broad empty desk. Perched on the shoulder of the man behind the desk – like a pet – is a large, scary bird-like creature with horns and spikes. It even has fangs that jut down from its beak. The demonic bird has its menacing eyes fixed on the man sitting in front of the desk, while the man on whose shoulder it sits says, “One day I just reached deep down inside myself and there he was.” You can’t help thinking that whatever purpose the man in front of the desk is there for, he would do well to forget it and run. The creature looks eager to give him a nasty bite at the slightest provocation.

The cartoonist played on a primal human fear, the fear that our worst behaviors might not originate entirely with us, and that venom, the kind one can’t see or measure in a beaker, might come from something rather than just appearing, spontaneous and Freudian. Whether we believe in venomous beings or not, we can’t deny that some of us are brought low by toxic thoughts and emotions. We can’t deny that some of us seem to be shot through with poison, even so eaten up with it that our minds and souls are dying and gangrenous. There are a lot of poisoned people walking around. They snarl and snap and sometimes really sink their teeth into others, thereby passing on the torment they have suffered. In my experience that’s a problem that calls for a stronger cure than Thorazine and Librium.

Christ told his disciples, “These signs will follow those who believe…they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them.” (Mark 16:17-18) Maybe he was not only talking about copperheads and arsenic. Jesus believed he came to save the world, and he believed he accomplished his purpose at Calvary, an event the son of man himself compared to Moses lifting a bronze serpent on a post (John 3:14). Whoever looked on that ancient serpent was saved from the fiery bites of snakes that had been loosed by sin (Numbers 21:6-9), and who among us is without sin? Jesus believed the blood he spilled at Calvary was the remedy for all of life’s ills. A lot of us see it the same way.

It’s been almost half a century since Andraé Crouch recorded “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” but the song, like the blood, is undiminished by time.

The blood that Jesus shed for me,
Way back on Calvary;
The blood that gives me strength
From day to day,
It will never lose it’s power.

It soothes my doubts and calms my fears,
And it dries all my tears;
The blood that gives me strength
From day to day,
It will never lose it’s power.

It reaches to the highest mountain,
It flows to the lowest valley;
The blood that gives me strength
From day to day,
It will never lose it’s power.

Thank God there is no bitterness that cannot be made sweet.

© MK Simonds

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

An Intercession

“For You formed my inward parts. You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:13-16

Father, we who are your children, salt and light in the earth, lift our voices to You. Forgive us, Lord, for our many trespasses against what is good and wholesome and right. Forgive us for the lives of our children, of America’s children. Cover them in their mothers’ wombs. Protect them and give them a future. Forgive our selfishness and our callousness. Forgive our narcissism. Most of all, by the blood of Jesus, bring peace to the innocent blood that cries out to You, even now, the blood that is on our hands and on our land.

Help us to forgive one another as we have been forgiven.

You have made Your people a beacon. Give us wisdom so that we do not cloak Your light in our dim opinions and prejudices and ignorance.

Help us, Lord, to fulfill the vision and the sacrifice of righteous men and women who have gone before us. They might lose faith if they saw us now, but help us not to lose faith.

America is not the Kingdom of Heaven. But like God’s household, we American citizens have been a nation of poor wretches cemented together and made great by the grace that is in Jesus. We have been a nation of people who look different, but share a commitment to Liberty, to each other, and to outsiders in need.  Help us honor the words Emma Lazarus penned more than a century ago. In the poet’s mind, a New Colossus symbolized America:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lord, help us to understand the source of our greatness. Help us honor the law of God, always, above our own laws. Your law is written in creation, and it is written on the conscience of every human being.

Help us steward the great trust You have placed in our hands and not squander the freedom we enjoy. Lord, we cling to President Lincoln’s words now, finding them even more meaningful than when they were first spoken a hundred and fifty years ago:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The – brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us –  that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain –  that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –  and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lord, in this season we join our voices to our late President’s, who though dead yet speaks. We offer ourselves to You, heart and mind, soul and spirit, that the dead shall not have died in vain and that the righteous shall not have suffered in vain. That this nation, under the holy Father, the only true God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and most of all that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

© M. K. Simonds

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

Reentry

reentry noun
1. an act of reentering;
2. the return from outer space into the earth’s atmosphere

Too fast
Out of control
Charred
Or only scorched

Reentry to the land of the living
From a flight of fancy
Fuel exhausted
Or I would
Light an afterburner
And take off again

Jettison toxic thoughts
Stabilize
Touchdown

There now
Easy Peasy

Will it sell?

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2016, Words | Leave a comment

Vanity

“Writing is very silly business at best.” John Steinbeck

I can’t say it any better than Mr. Steinbeck.

Recently, I’ve thought about what my answer would be if I were asked, “Why do you write?” Or, more to the point, “Why did you write that?” I don’t have an answer, except the one Meryl Streep’s character Florence Foster Jenkins supplied in the 2016 film named for her: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

There it is. Right there.

People may say I can’t write, but no one can ever say I didn’t write.

In the Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Writing volume titled, Plot, Ansen Dibell writes about story ideas:

“Most often these valid, dynamic story ideas won’t be things that you already know and have settled. Settled things make for explanations, not for absorbing fiction. Instead, they’ll be situations or people or memories that are troubling you, things you want, for yourself, to work out and understand. Explorations, not explanations.”

The fiction that comes out of such explorations – out of the questions and attempted answers, imagined and drafted and reimagined and redrafted, out of the love that begins to root itself in the work (Who can keep that from happening?) – that fiction is very silly business at best. It’s a silly way to spend one’s time. Lots and lots of one’s time.

Writing is too much work to make a good hobby. It’s solitary and tedious, notwithstanding the joy of completing a scene or chapter that makes a writer’s heart skip with satisfaction: “That’s exactly what I wanted to happen there,” or “That turned out even better than I hoped.” A reasonable person might consider such satisfaction a disproportionately meager reward for the time and effort spent obtaining it.

Things go undone for want of time and energy spent writing. Life passes by unlived while writers are caught up with people who aren’t people at all. They are characters who have no substance weightier than kilobytes and ink. Yet they are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They are the apples of our eyes, at least for a while. If we write them well enough, we or anyone else can return to them after many years and again delight in their humor and hubris, in their pride and their prejudices.

We have searched our characters and we know them. We comprehend their every move and the reasons behind it. There is not a word on their tongues that we do not thoroughly understand. We know their backstories, the unwritten details that give heft to their thoughts and words and actions. We writers know our characters more thoroughly that any human being ever knows another, friend or lover, child or parent. We know our characters as only a creator can.

We love our characters, too. We fall in love with them over the course of the months and years we spend together. All their little quirks and cuteness, with which we are intimately acquainted, sweep us off our feet. We can’t help imagining how much others are bound to love them, too. What if an actor such as Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, Ryan Gosling or Emily Blunt crosses paths with our beloved offspring? Won’t any one of them, more than anything else in the world, want to become the face of one of our beautifully drawn characters, as Gregory Peck became the face of Atticus Finch? It stands to reason, right? It could happen. It happened to an unknown gal from Alabama who hit the trifecta: Bestseller, Pulitzer, Iconic Film. It could happen again. To us.

These are the thoughts that come to mind, despite our better judgement. Despite our unspoken fear that our characters, like litters of unwanted kittens, will live out their playful and entertaining lives within the four walls of our homes. This we know is the most likely and disappointing outcome. Nobody wants to become a cat lady, and no writer wants to churn out unread stories.

There are plenty of excellent reasons not to go to the trouble of writing. But if we believe the world may be a better place because our characters are birthed into it, well, that’s a good enough reason to stick with it. And when one work is finished, it’s a good enough reason to begin again at Genesis, hoping for the best, even though the best we can hope for is very silly business indeed.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2016, Words | Leave a comment

That Was Then, This Is Now

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”  Isaiah 60:1-3

I’m reading a fiction this month. The novel is World War Z by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft). More zombies?!? Yes, that’s right. But it’s the last time I’ll mention them, I promise. I’m intrigued by the origins of the zombie myth and fascinated by our fascination with the walking dead (see last month’s LOG).

Resurrection after death is the cornerstone of every Christian’s faith. Just read 1 Corinthians 15. As Paul said, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (verse 19) So it isn’t surprising that the dead rising – the nexus of all our hopes – would be twisted by our enemy into something grotesque. But that’s not really what I want to write about. I want to write a little bit more about Jesus getting those keys to death and hell. (Revelation 1:18)

What – what exactly – went on around here before the Lord was crucified and descended into the bowels of the earth to announce his Lordship there? (Ephesians 4:8-10) What exactly was the enemy capable of before that moment? I submit to you that we have no idea.

Do we have any concept of the gross darkness under which mankind suffered before the birth of Jesus? Before angels stood on a hillside near Bethlehem and announced to shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:10-14)

From the first to the second Adam, however many millennia that was, people made little progress beyond barbarism. Oppression was rampant. Almost everyone was poor. Technology was limited to stone, wood, and primitive metal works. Really primitive metal work, not yard art. Medicine was, well, let’s just say you did well to stay healthy. No one can argue these points. They are documented facts. When we imagine the ancient world, these are the things we think about. We don’t think too much about what the feel of the place was. We don’t think about how scary and inhospitable that world was. The grace that was to come in the person of Jesus Christ had not yet arrived. The Holy Spirit had not been released into the church as He was at Pentecost. There were no people who were salt or light.

Don’t you find it interesting that in the scant two thousand years since Jesus came and went, we’ve gone from wooden wheels to iPhones? We’ve gone from a world that was in large part barbaric to a world that is predominately civilized, a world that at least espouses Christian values. Remember, Christian values did not exist before Christ. I find this interesting. In fact, I find it quite remarkable considering the meager progress man made in the thousands of years prior to Jesus coming on the scene.

Why do religions that court demonic entities focus on ancient things?  Could it be that the forces behind all things mystical desire to return to the millennia before Calvary, when they worked with a much freer hand? If I were a demon, that’s what I’d want.

Is it possible that – back then – devils from time to time animated dead bodies? I imagine it’s not only possible, but likely.

I figure most people who happen across my website are believers, but whether you believe in Jesus or not, believe me when I say you have a lot to be thankful to Him for. Jesus changed everything about living and dying on earth.

In the words of songwriter Josh Wilson in That Was Then, This Is Now,

We used to hide from the light
We made friends with the night
We were headed the wrong way on a one way track
Going nowhere fast

We got used to the dark
We thought this is who we are
And we figured that we were just too far gone
But we were wrong

So go ahead, put the past in the past
Box it up like an old photograph 
You don’t have to go back
‘Cause that was then and this is now 
‘Cause that was then and this is now

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

Some Devils Never Change

“Have I now come up without the Lord against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, ‘Go up against this land, and destroy it.’” Isaiah 36:10

Fans of the wildly popular (If Daryl Dies We Riot) television series, The Walking Dead, might be surprised to learn zombie apocalypses are nothing new.

Remember that old Bible story about Jonah and the whale? The thing that got Jonah into trouble in the first place was his refusal to go to Nineveh and warn the city’s inhabitants about the bad stuff that was going to happen to them if they did not mend their wicked ways. Nineveh was a major metropolis in those days, and it was the place to go and worship Ishtar, a goddess who was all about human sexuality, and no doubt, perversion. One can only imagine what Ishtar enjoyed in the way of worship. According to an ancient Assyrian myth, Ishtar stormed the gates to the netherworld, the land of no return, the land of darkness. She directed her thoughts toward the house without exit for him who enters therein. Arriving at the gate, she said,

“Gatekeeper, ho, open thy gate!
Open thy gate that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate to let me enter,
I will break the door. I will wrench the lock.
I will smash the door-posts. I will force the doors.
I will bring up the dead to eat the living.
And the dead will outnumber the living.”

Sounds like Ishtar was working up a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse. About three thousand years ago.

A century or so after the people of Nineveh believed the prophet Jonah and saved themselves, the city become the home of one Sennacherib, king of Assyria. Sennacherib was an ambitious guy who busied himself conquering everybody, everywhere. At some point Sennacherib’s military campaign brought him to Jerusalem. Rather, it brought his representative to Jerusalem since the smallish city probably wasn’t worth a visit by the king himself. At that time Jerusalem was ruled by a man named Hezekiah, who had been the king of Judah for fourteen years.

Hezekiah marched to his own drumbeat. He had not wasted any time implementing his policies after succeeding his father to the throne. Within a month of becoming king, Hezekiah began to take Jerusalem and Judah back to their roots. He abolished idolatry and restored temple worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He even restored the ministry of the Levitical priests. The Bible says Hezekiah trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that “after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. He held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses”. The Lord was with Hezekiah, and he prospered everywhere he went.

Everything that Hezekiah did, he did to restore his country to a place of peace and blessing with their God. Hezekiah knew the Law of Moses, and he surely must have been familiar with Deuteronomy and the curses described therein. This one, for example,

“Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything,  therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything…They shall besiege you at all your gates until your high and fortified walls, in which you trust, come down throughout all your land…You shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and desperate straits in which your enemy shall distress you.” Deuteronomy 28:47,48,52,53

A siege really is a terrible, cursed enterprise. It stops routine life altogether. Everybody has to hunker down and try to outlast it. Or gather their backbones and try and fight off their enemies. A siege happens because the siege-ees have retreated within the walls of their city in an attempt to not be annihilated by the siege-ers, who are almost always too strong to face in a stand-up fight.

So Hezekiah set about to please the Lord his God. Besides tearing down idols and restoring proper worship, Hezekiah rebelled against the king of Assyria and refused to serve him. Sennacherib was not about to take Hezekiah’s rebellion lying down. He couldn’t have other nations getting the same idea, so he sent troops to Judah and Jerusalem to lay siege.

Wait. What? The Lord should have been happy with Hezekiah; so why this impending siege?

Judah was seriously outgunned, a point Sennacherib’s spokesman did not neglect to point out. “Here’s an idea,” he called to the men who were standing on the wall, the men who were looking down at a horde of invaders. He spoke in Hebrew so everybody listening would understand, “How about I give you two thousand horses to use in your fight against us? Oh wait, I forgot. You don’t have enough men to put riders on them.”

“Please speak to us in Aramaic,” said Hezekiah’s men politely, “Don’t speak in Hebrew. Everyone is listening.”

“Has my master sent me to your master and to you to speak these words, and not to these men who sit on the wall, who will eat and drink their own waste with you?”

You can see how it was going. Sennacherib’s man was saying some pretty scary stuff. He was making a lot of sense, too. Nevertheless, Hezekiah had instructed everyone to keep quiet. Don’t engage the enemy. So, they answered not a word. Neither did Hezekiah. Instead, he went to prayer. He took Sennacherib’s threats, which were contrary to the promises God had given to his people, and laid them out before the Lord. Literally. He spread on the alter a letter Sennacherib sent and asked the Lord what He was going to do about it.

Hezekiah did not believe Sennacherib’s man when he said, “Have I now come up without the Lord against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, ‘Go up against this land, and destroy it.’” What was happening was not what was supposed to happen, at least not according to the Scripture. So Hezekiah prayed. He took Sennacherib’s threats into the presence of God to find out what to do. And you know what? He got a real nice answer for his trouble. The Lord sent Isaiah the prophet to tell Hezekiah that Jerusalem would not fall to Sennacherib. And it did not. Sennacherib went back to Nineveh and died there.

There are a lot of ugly things in this old world. You may not believe this, but I think there are hordes of ugly, hateful creatures roaming far and wide. We can’t see them, usually, but they are out there. They are fallen angels and disembodied spirits, and every single one of them is pissed to high heaven. They hate God and they despise people. They are predators seeking prey. Every day and every night. They’re scary, and I don’t like to think about them. Is it any wonder they cross our paths from time to time? Is it any wonder they are hawking the same lying threats they peddled thousands of years ago?

Jerusalem never fell to Assyria. Jerusalem enjoyed a reprieve, and in the meantime Assyria fell to Babylon. About a hundred years after Hezekiah took on Sennacherib, Jerusalem fell to Babylon. It was bound to happen, and when it did the prophet Jeremiah said, “Just go with it.” Jerusalem has a history of ups and downs, kind of like us, and kind of like us, it’s still here. Just go have a look at Nineveh. It did not fare as well.

Ishtar lost her chance at starting up that zombie apocalypse. Jesus descended into the underworld, and he was the only man alive or dead who could exit after entering. This he did, and brought back with him the keys to the joint. I, for one, sleep a whole lot easier knowing they won’t fall into anyone else’s hands.

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

The Tell

“And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds,  but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”  Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” 2 Samuel 12:1-6

In the enduring sci-fi, film noir classic, Blade Runner, bounty hunter Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) uses an empathy test to identify Nexus-6 model replicants, who look and act like humans but are not. They are androids. The empathy test is known as the Voigt-Kampff device in the movie and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on which Blade Runner is based. The device is a kind of lie detector that measures responses to questions that should provoke empathy. The replicants try to fake the right answers, but they always have a tell. Thus the bounty hunter identifies and “retires” them.

I usually think of stories – fictions – as devices that reveal the truth, but it’s probably much more accurate to say the truth is hidden in them. In fact, Matthew recorded an exchange between Jesus and the disciples on this very subject:

Then the disciples came and said to him [Jesus], “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 

Finally, in a 1960 Paris Review interview, novelist Aldous Huxley said,

And I must say I think that probably all philosophy ought to be written in this form [fiction]; it would be much more profound and much more edifying. It’s awfully easy to write abstractly, without attaching much meaning to the big words. But the moment you have to express ideas in the light of a particular context, in a particular set of circumstances, although it’s a limitation in some ways, it’s also an invitation to go much further and much deeper…In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.

Have you ever found a kindred spirit after seeing someone’s response to a story you love? By seeing that person moved by a story that moves you? Do we not all find some commonality and community as Americans and as human beings in the tale of Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch, and of their friends, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley?  I read that Oprah Winfrey had lunch at the Plaza Hotel once with Harper Lee, and during lunch she attempted to talk Ms. Lee into an interview. Oprah reported the author told her that people thought she was Scout, but actually she was Boo. That was all it took. Oprah “got it” and ceased any attempt to drag Ms. Lee with her shy ways into the limelight. It would have been a sin.

It’s no accident the prophet Nathan approached King David with the story of a slaughtered lamb. David was a shepherd, a man who may have been more tender-hearted toward lambs than husbands. Thus Nathan made his point: The life of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband whom David had killed, was just as precious to the Lord as the life of a sweet, innocent lamb was to a poor man who loved her as a daughter. David “got it” and was moved to remorse.

A new year is upon us. It’s a good time to go back and read those parables in the gospels, the ones Jesus told instead of saying the thousands of other things he might have said. The stories the Holy Spirit made sure were recorded and attested to as having come from the Savior himself. They tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is really like. They resonate with us as they resonated with the common people who first heard them – people like us. Their meaning doesn’t have to be explained to us. We “get it” right away. These stories bring us together in our shared understanding, and we become kindred spirits.

That, my brothers and sisters, is a marvelous tell.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

Not Enough

“Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning.” Genesis 41:18-21 ESV

The Bible is filled with stories about people who endured seasons of not having enough, some of which lasted a long, long time. Many of us have favorite Bible stories about people who responded bravely during times of want, who hoped beyond hope as if they knew something everyone else did not, something that gave them more confidence than their circumstances justified.

Joseph was one of these people.

Joseph was a dreamer. He was a seventeen year old kid who was the apple of his Daddy’s eye. I picture him being utterly guileless when he told his already resentful older brothers about a particular dream he had. They were farmers, and in his dream Joseph saw the sheaves of grain his brothers had gathered bowing to his sheaf. Right. They didn’t like that much.

Then Joseph had another dream and told it to his brothers. In this one he saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. Really? Now not only the brothers were to bow to him, but their father and mother as well? His father rebuked him over the dream, but he did give it some weight. The Bible says Joseph’s father kept the saying in his mind. I don’t believe Joseph was a blowhard, but certainly he was unwise. A more prudent young man might have seen the evil that was brewing and kept his mouth shut. Not Joseph.

His brothers had had enough of Joseph’s view of the world. At the first opportunity they threw him into a pit way out in the country. At the second opportunity they sold him to a traveling band of foreigners who were taking goods to Egypt to sell. “Good riddance,” they must have said among themselves.

One of Pharaoh’s officers bought Joseph from the traveling band, and he became a house slave. Though Joseph had lost his freedom, the Bible says God was with him. His master liked him and believed he was successful. He put Joseph in charge of everything he had. Joseph was a powerful guy, and the Bible says he was handsome in form and appearance. It was a winning combination as far as the lady of the house was concerned. She was one of Egypt’s bored and desperate housewives, and she found Joseph simply irresistible. Day after day she threw herself at him, eventually grabbing him by the clothes. Joseph ran out of the house, leaving his garment in her hands. This unnamed Egyptian housewife – his master’s wife – did not like being told no. She turned the facts around and said Joseph had attacked her.

Joseph’s master threw him into prison. Nevertheless, despite his bondage, Joseph prospered to the extent that one can in a North African slammer. But he still was not free. Time passed, and Pharaoh’s butler was imprisoned along with Joseph. More time passed, and eventually the butler had a dream. Joseph might have sworn off dreams and their interpretations given his experience, but he didn’t. The butler told Joseph his dream and Joseph supplied a favorable interpretation. “Remember me when things go well for you,” he told the butler, “Please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and her also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.” The butler was soon freed, but he forgot all about Joseph.

How Joseph’s heart must have leapt the day that butler was released. He must have thought, This is it! The nightmare that began years ago is finally over! I’m getting out! Finally I’ll be free again! Did Joseph imagine traveling back to Canaan to be with his parents? Did he daydream about the look on his brothers’ faces when he showed up? But day followed day, and no one came to let him out. He must have become heartsick. Anybody would have.

Joseph had endured a terribly long season of not enough by the time Pharaoh had the dream recorded in Genesis 41. It all started because Joseph did not have enough wisdom, and his brothers did not have enough love. As a slave, Joseph did not have enough protection from a woman who did not have enough to do. His friend, the butler, did not have enough gratitude. Bad stuff happened when Joseph was unwise, and more bad stuff happened when he tried to do the right thing. It seemed like things were destined to stack up against him despite anything he did. Isn’t it interesting that a dream got him into hot water and a dream got him out of it?

As twenty-first century Americans, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out why whatever is happening to us is happening to us. There is too much time and effort spent on that question, I think. Things turned out pretty well for Joseph in the end, and isn’t that what really matters? After all, the end of a matter is much better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Certainly it was for Abraham, for Sarah, for Jacob, for Moses, for David, for Rehab of Jericho, for Ruth, for Peter, and for Paul. In fact, just about everyone into whose lives God interjected Himself had, at times, a very hard row to hoe.

Tough times come and go, and so do easy times. Each shall pass eventually, so it’s best not to put much stock in either. We do well to adopt the attitude Paul had when he wrote, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

All this we too can do, and oh so very much more.

© M K Simonds

Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment

The Treacherous Years

“And I said to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” Luke 12:19 ESV

An odd coincidence happened recently. During the nighttime, I had sudden thoughts about the decades to come and how I should live them. Frankly, these thoughts were unsettling. How does one approach the final third of one’s life? Lived in a body that has endured six or seven decades of wear and abuse. Lived in a culture that is at best dismissive and at worst hostile. The coincidence came a few days later when a quiet Indy film presented itself. It was a bit of a salty movie starring Blythe Danner as a widow in her seventies coping with the American dream of retirement. The movie, titled I’ll See You In My Dreams, subtly asked the questions, How does one cope when pretty much all one will ever do has already been done? How does one live when all the challenges, all the accomplishments, all the drama that accompany living are past tense? The film presented the questions; it did not present the answers.

Around fifty-nine million Americans are age sixty or older. That’s a fifth of the U. S. population. It’s a statistic of concern in our country as our aging citizens cease contributing to the national economy and instead must be supported by it. After all, part of the American dream is taking our leisure in our sixties and seventies and beyond. A person can get by on Social Security, but one needs a hefty nest egg producing income to live well, especially at current returns on low-risk investments. From this need have sprung retirement planners and wealth managers galore, each firm more eager than the one before to set you and me on the path of the rich fool described in Luke 12:16-21.

The question of how to live the final portion of life, however long, is no less important and no less pressing than the question of how to live any part of life. A culture that encourages its elders, as Scripture calls us, to check out at a time when we are figuring things out is no less treacherous than a gang-owned neighborhood is to a youngster. The culture, like the neighborhood gang, must be resisted until one finds one’s way. Our actions – we who are the wisdom of a citizenry – are no less important than those of the young lions ruling Wall Street and Main Street.

We matter.

Proverbs 4:18, long a favorite of mine, reads, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” The verse immediately following, verse 19, reads, “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” The Rock over whom the world stumbles – that most offensive Person to many of our countrymen – Jesus of Nazareth, He is our righteousness.

I may not know the answers to my own upcoming decades, and I sure can’t Google them, but I do have a friend who knows the way forward. Who needs a map through uncharted territory when you know the map maker? For that matter, He is the territory maker. Minnie Louise Haskins said it best in 1908:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

© M. K. Simonds

Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment

Jacked Up

“They do not know, nor do they understand;
They walk about in darkness;
All the foundations of the earth are unstable.”
Psalm 82:5

The clay of north central Texas is known to expand and contract, hence no basements to be found around here. We run soaker hoses next to the house during dry spells to keep the earth – can you call it soil? – around the house from shrinking, thereby shifting the foundation to the point of causing stress fractures in the floor, walls, and ceiling. It’s common in Texas to see cracks in ceilings and walls, and even hairline cracks in foundations. We don’t think too much about it. Usually these require only cosmetic repair, but sometimes there is structural damage. In the worst cases the foundation has to be re-leveled and reinforced with concrete pilings or piers that restore it. Scores of companies provide this service, and business is good.

Years ago while house hunting, I was shown a home that had been repaired in this way. One of the pilings, a round circle of concrete mismatched from that around it, was visible. The price of the house was discounted because buyers shy away from foundation trouble. Who knows if more problems might surface down the road? But when you think about it, wouldn’t it be smart to invest in the house where the problems have been identified and repaired? Might the house next to it, sitting on similar ground, be next? Yet we don’t really think that way, do we?

Houses are like lives sometimes.

In Matthew 7:24-27, a disciple recorded the Lord making a comparison between people who live according to God’s commands and people who build their homes on solid foundations. I suspect I’m not too different from most folks in that I’ve always read that passage with only the all or nothing in mind. That is, the house either stands or falls without much middle ground. In fact, the Lord mentions the terrible fall of a house built on sand when the wind and rain come.

Calamity notwithstanding, it does seem most of us dwell in houses like these in north Texas. They’re mostly stable, but there is some cracking where part of the house sits on shifting soil. We’re situated, most of us, somewhat on the truth and somewhat on the ways of this old world, a.k.a. culture. We expect to see little cracks here and there, and we patch them up best we can in the privacy of our interior lives. Sometimes, though, the foundation falls away suddenly or dramatically, and real structural damage occurs. Then it’s time to call for help, which is wonderful, but the repairs often leave tell-tale signs the problems were there. Just like a house that’s been jacked-up, figuratively and literally.

It’s not possible to build anything that lasts on the ways of this old world, even though we try. The earth itself won’t last forever. The cracks and gaps in our lives, large and small, bear witness to our bad choices about where to build. Our repairs aren’t always perfect either. If we’re smart, we’ll see even imperfect repairs as real victories and nothing to be ashamed of. After all, we’re in this together – encountering the same temptations as everybody else (1 Corinthians 10:12).

So if our neighbor suddenly has foundation trouble, let’s not get too caught up in thinking better him than me lest we come next. Compassion begets compassion. And if we discover a fissure of our own that seems to shoot out of nowhere, remember where such faults come from.

At the risk of mixing metaphors – but perhaps no more than Master Donne himself – it seems his ancient poem fits.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

© M. K. Simonds

 

Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment

The Tyro

tyro, noun, a beginner in learning anything; novice.

The Fourth Edition of The Elements of Style includes a section titled, An Approach to Style, supplied by E. B. White – every writer’s colleague and friend – who brought us Professor Strunk’s pithy little book in the first place. Item 14 in this section admonishes, “Avoid fancy words.”

“Tyro” is a fancy word to me because I didn’t know it until a few minutes ago, but it’s the right word because it doesn’t hint at working for another in order to learn a trade or skill. To whom does the novelist apprentice? Jack London wrote on writers and writing, “I’ve had no mentor but myself.” But don’t confuse having no mentor with having many mentors, which any serious writer should have because there are many to be had. The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series is a good place to start.

Part of my apprenticeship to writing is reading as much good fiction as I can make time for. I’m reading successful authors’s observations about the craft, then reading samples of their work. Another part of it is seeking professional advice that helps me avoid rookie mistakes that depreciate the work. This author is trying to take a long view. Stay in for the long haul. Make a career of it.

These observations might have been titled, The Patient Writer or Revision: Early, Often and Endless. But my theme is broader than these titles imply. Fresh composition pouring out “in flow” is really fun. It’s a dynamic that happened a lot more during the composition of the first novel than with Stork Bite. The Stork Bite characters and stories seem to demand a more deliberate effort in the new composition phase. Furthermore, the book requires multiple revisions in which the words must be validated (researched), rearranged, embellished, trimmed, cleaned up and polished. Hours piled upon hours.

Today I told a friend that I wished Stork Bite was finished so I could get on with looking for an agent. What I really meant was I’m anxious to find out if Stork Bite will attract the interest of an agent and a publisher, or will I be going back to the drawing board to learn more so that the work becomes worthy. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of Stork Bite, I will be going back to the drawing board. I’m ruminating another novel, and perhaps a short story. I’ve always loved short stories, especially ones made savory with a little irony, but I have even more to learn about writing short work than writing novels.

The likely outcome that the book will collect rejections is a hard thought mid-way through the writing. It isn’t hard to be published – nowadays it’s as easy as a Create Space account on Amazon – but it’s harder to be read. I was so sure that first book was good enough to take off, and then it didn’t. I would have worked differently during the creation process had I known. But I was a novice. What did I expect? This time I’m trying to keep my experience in mind. There is no rush. There is nothing to rush to except getting better at the whole affair.

In his Art of Fiction interview, novelist James Baldwin had this to say about writing (emphasis added):

“Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.”

And this:

“I don’t try to be prophetic, as I don’t sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality. It reminds me of something Pablo Picasso was supposed to have said to Gertrude Stein while he was painting her portrait. Gertrude said, “I don’t look like that.” And Picasso replied, “You will.” And he was right.”

I’m still a novice. Years have passed in which I took a leave of absence from writing, years in which I busied myself with grown-up pursuits rather than pipe drams. Yet here I am again. Writing. I don’t get paid for it. No deadlines exist. No one cares if I don’t write. Except me. That’s how it is with tyros, at least until they are pros.

© M K Simonds

 

Posted in 2015, Words | Leave a comment

Taking on Debt

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” Hebrews 10:5-7

I know a man, a good man, who took on a sizeable debt for a friend. What I mean by that is he borrowed the money, and he paid the friend’s debt because the friend could not pay it. The friend was free after that. The debt had no more attachment to her. She was dead to it, figuratively and legally. It would be great to be the friend, wouldn’t it? But it would be awful to be the guy who borrowed the money. He borrowed money to pay off someone else’s debt, a debt he didn’t run up, and then he worked how ever long it took to pay it off. It took three years, actually. That’s how long he worked that he would not have worked otherwise, and I’m not making up that timeline for effect. It’s the truth. He worked three years in order to pay back the money that covered the friend’s debt. I just want to be crystal clear about what happened.

By anybody’s measure, that’s a heckuva friend. That’s an entirely different deal than a rich person paying off a debt out of his or her abundance. You really couldn’t even call that a sacrifice. But borrowing and exposing yourself to all the risks that accompany going into debt is a lot to ask. In fact, it sounds foolhardy, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t want to do it. Would you?

I really believe we think of the Lord as a rich guy paying off our debt. Oh, I’m not saying we wouldn’t give all the right answers if asked. We’d say he became lowly and poor for our sakes. We’d acknowledge that he left all of Heaven’s riches. We’d stipulate to the incarnation and the cross, but I’m not sure we really get it. Let me just say I didn’t get it until I spent some time thinking about the man who put himself out there and worked so hard to pay his friend’s debt. I’ve been a Christian a lot of years, but his act of kindness was a revelation to me.

No, Jesus didn’t pay our debt out of the riches of Heaven. It was a lot more personal than that. The Lord took on a debt he had to work off with blood, sweat and tears. In a recent podcast on prayer, Pastor Jack Hayford made reference to the Lord praying in the garden – ironic, isn’t it? a garden? – until He was able to press through to God’s will, to wit, rescuing the human race. “Praying through” is a term we used to use a lot. Praying through is good. Pastor Hayford talked about how good it is when we pray through together. Many of us have been in those situations and would agree it’s very good. He talked about the Lord taking the disciples with him to the garden, to watch and pray with him through that terrible night. But they were sleepy, and so the Father sent angels to strengthen him in his task.

Isak Dinesen wrote a Gothic story about a sleepless young man who roamed the streets of his seaside town in the nighttime. One night he saw a lighted doorway at the end of an alley. He peered inside and saw a very ugly red-headed man counting money. Specifically, counting and recounting thirty pieces of silver. The young man told the red-headed man he could not sleep. It’s been many years since I read the story, but as I recall the red-headed man answered by saying all people do is sleep, the dolts. He remarked that they slept in the garden, the slackers. “I didn’t sleep,” he said. Chilling.

It was really extra nice of Jesus to put himself through all of that and bail us out. After all, he was free and clear – we were the ones who were in over our heads. There is something disturbing in thinking about these things, though, and that’s God’s expectation that we do likewise. About all I can say to that is, “Yikes!”

He paid a debt He did not owe.
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed someone to wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song,
Amazing Grace.
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

My debt He paid upon the cross.
He cleansed my soul from all its dross.
I thought that one one could all my sins erase.
But now I sing a brand new song,
Amazing Grace.
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

O such great pain my Lord endured
When He my sinful soul secured.
I should have diedthere but Jesus took my place.
So now I sing a brand new song,
Amazing Grace.
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

He didn’t give to me a loan.
He gave Himself; now He’s my own.
He’s gone to Heaven to make for me a place.
And now I sing a brand new song,
Amazing Grace.
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment