28 July 2011

The Jailer's Songbird 3

The Death of Tyndale
Here is the conclusion to a short story that won me first place in the Word Guild's Write! Canada writing contest. Contestants were told to write on the theme of "changing the world through words."

“It needn’t have come to this, had you curbed your vulgar notions.”
    The sorcerer jerked his nose at Mina.
    “As if commoners could interpret the Scriptures. Lex pedagogus noster fuit! The Law of the church is the teacher of the people!” Speaking then in a language that Mina had never heard, Sir William answered, weak but clear.
    “Ouketi hoopo paidagogon esmen. Now we are no longer under a teacher. For you are all the sons of God, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” A thrill passed through her. She fingered her pocket again, wanting to write it down.
    The sorcerer’s face flushed purple.
    “Do not flaunt your idolatries here! Saintly Jerome knew Greek a thousand years before your infelicitous birthing, and his translation is canonical! Ah, but I forgot, you believe the sacred word is to be bottled and peddled to the common rabble,” His gaze fell on Mina. Her pocket felt so heavy with forbidden secrets that she imagined its seams were about to burst. Smiling thinly then, he put a hand into a fold of his robe. He drew out a long rope and still looking at her, held it before her knight.
    “Though you be spared the flames for the sake of your priesthood, this rope will suffice to strangle your neck. Your uncouth translations have gone to the flames, and your corpse will soon be with them. What then of your labors, master linguist?”
    Mina squeezed her sponge into the bucket and looked up at Sir William. He beamed at her with a smile that promised nothing very bad could happen to him now. She believed him.
    “Back to your roost,” one of them crowed, prodding her with his foot. Just as she was exiting, Mina glanced back from the door, but one of the robed figures stepped in front and blocked her view. Once she was in the passageway, Mister Philips fell into step with her, reached down and closed his fist on the hand that was carrying the bucket.
    “Much too heavy for one so small,” he whispered. “I’ll help you to the stairs.” Mina tried to pull herself free, but when Phillips yanked back on her little arm, two things happened all at once: the bucket deposited its contents upon his shoes and the notebook tumbled out of Mina’s pocket with a thud. Phillips roared in dismay, then spying the notebook on the ground, he asked,
    “What’s this, sparrow?”
     In that instant a footman approached with her lamp and announced,
    “The horses are waiting at the ready, Mister Phillips.” Snatching up the notebook, Mina left the bucket where it was and broke for the stairs. Phillips snarled after her.
    “Your Pappy will pay for these, little birdy!”
    Mina raced past the footman and navigated the stairs in the dark, not stopping to catch her breath until she had made it all the way back to the top. What could she do for him? What could she do? She opened the door and fell inside. Father was at the table, his face in his hands, his shoulders silently shaking. He looked up, and Mina saw streaks of tears. Father never cried, not even after Mama...
    “What is it, Papa?”
    He wiped his cheeks and held out his hands. “Come here, Mina.” She went over and was hoisted into his lap. He looked confused, and it scared her.” Something had happened.
    “Tell me, Papa, what is it?”
    “Those stories, Mina, those songs, I do not know what, but there is something about them. They stay with me through the day. He stays with me.”
    “Who, Papa?”
    “Mister Tyndale’s Jesus, I think,” he said, touching his heart, “I cannot explain it.”
    The passage returned to her then, the one Sir William had used to answer the sorcerers. “I can, Papa.”
    “What do you mean?” He brushed the hair away from her face.
    “Listen,” she said, and closing her eyes, she sang the words for him in a melody slow and sweet, an earnest expression marking her face.
    “You are all the sons of God, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” When the last note faded, she opened her eyes.
    For the first time in as long as she could remember, Papa was smiling. “Sing it again, my little nightingale.”

27 July 2011

The Jailer's Songbird 2

Leaf from Tyndale's 1536 New Testament
Here is the second of three parts from a short story that won me first place in the Word Guild's Write! Canada writing contest. The conclusion will be posted tomorrow.

   “Canis Diabolus,” squawked a voice from within. Phillips turned back to his entertainments, his hand still on Mina’s chin. But she sidestepped around him and ducked into the cell. Robed figures stood looming over the prisoner. Seeing her knight’s sunken eyes, his bony shoulders draped in tatters, Mina would have said he was a hundred years old. She counted. One, two, three... eight sorcerers this time. The room was thick with their cloaks. 
    “Dog of the devil, who are you to replace Saint Jerome?” one of them crowed down at him.
    “Miscreant, leper.” hissed another.
    A curdling pool of vomit lay on the ground before him. He wasn’t keeping his food down. His hands were shaking worse than before. Mina bit her lip. If only she could take his leggings, so thin, so full of holes, and patch them for him, bring him her own little night cap against the creeping cold. But the sorcerers had forbidden it. What could she do?
    “ Renounce your follies, Tindalus. Pride goeth before a fall!” One of them thrust a pen into his hand and knocked on a document that lay in front of him on the table.
    “Sign.” He sat there quietly, looking down at the parchment, the pen shaking in his hand. If only they would all go to sleep! Mina stared at them, willing it to be so. One of the sorcerers turned on her and she stumbled back, and clattered against the bucket.
“Scrub that muck, girl!” She hurried forward and fell to her knees, sponging the site of her knight’s upheavals.
    Sir William lifted his head, seeing her now for the first time since she came in. He returned the pen quietly to the table and looked up.
    “Pride goeth before a fall? Indeed. All the more, therefore, shall I resort to His word, a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path.” It was one of her songs! Mina stopped scrubbing and moved her hand toward the apron pocket where her notebook lay. She felt its comforting weight.
    The chief sorcerer answered then.
    “Mind your tongue, Tindalus! You have sullied that word with your unauthorized... distortions!” He spat it out like a piece of rotten meat.
    “In addition to this warrant of execution, we have secured an injunction against anyone found in possession of your malcontented blasphemies! How many will suffer on your account, I wonder?” The sorcerer sneered, “We have already secured a goodly number to our custody.” Mina jerked her hand away from her pocket. Her ears were thumping.

26 July 2011

The Jailer's Songbird 1

William Tyndale
Here is the first of three parts from a short story that won me first place in the Word Guild's Write! Canada writing contest. The next two parts will be posted over the next two days, while I'm getting things into shape for the fall.

Mina eased one foot down before the other, ball to heel on each stone step. In her left hand there flickered a lamp, while the right gripped a wooden bucket that knocked against her ten-year old shins and sent splashlets of vinegar-water plunging down the spiraling staircase of the Vilvoorde Castle dungeon. The sorcerers had summoned her.
    “They are lawyers and clergymen,” said her papa, the jailer, “and doctors of divinity. The moment they’re done with you, fly back to our quarters straightaway. And remember, Mina,” he said, kneeling down with heavy eyes, “be careful.”
    “Yes Papa.” She kissed him on the cheek and skipped off into the belly of the fortress, as sure of her way as a bird in a tree.
    They were here for Sir William, Mina’s knight. Of all the prisoners, he was her favorite. He told stories she had never heard before, written long ago and far away in strange tongues that he had translated himself. Mina listened and wrote them in Mama’s old notebook. Some of them she made into songs, and sang them to Papa at night. She was trying to hum one even now, but her voice wavered, fell silent.
    How long had they been down there, pecking at Sir William with their examinations? Two hours? Three? Her foot touched the bottom of the staircase and she rounded the corner of a long, unlit passageway, her big brown eyes expanding in the gloom. Voices echoed down the corridor from a dimly lit cell at the end, “Scelerata... lepra!” She set the lamp by the staircase, and made her way forward, lugging the bucket past door after door.
    She pictured herself striding into the cell, raising a hand to send everyone into a deep sleep, then leading her knight to freedom, magically unlocking door after door, just like the elfin king Elegast from Mama’s stories so long ago. As she neared the open cell, however, the quivering light outlined a figure in the hall before her: Henry Phillips, Sir William’s betrayer. Papa called him a heresy hound, but as he leered in on the proceedings, the grin on in his face looked more like a hyena’s. Mina lowered her head and quickened her pace toward the entrance.
    “Hweet hweet,” whistled Phillips, stepping in front of her. She stopped, looked down, tried to curtsy. He took the bucket from her hand, and after placing it just within, lifted her chin. “Why so hasty, little sparrow?” The reek of his breath passed into her nose.

19 July 2011

The Way We Talk and The Way We Live

Do you want me to tell you a story?
Do you want me to tell you a story? asked “the man” to his son, “the boy,” in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

The world has been laid waste by global warming or nuclear war or meteor impact or we don’t know what, and only a few humans still live, among which are the man and the boy, who have been walking the road since before the boy has memory.

It’s mind-killingly boring (the walking, not the book), so the man tells the boy stories to pass the time and to lift their spirits by framing their eternal march in a gilding of noble tales about their good deeds along the way. Back to the man’s question, then.

Do you want me to tell you a story?
Why not?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Why not?
Those stories are not true.
They don’t have to be true. They’re stories.
Yes But in the stories we’re always helping people and we don’t help people.

What are you doing in the stories that you tell? What framework have you constructed to most flatteringly display your actions of the day, the month, the hour? Are you the tragic hero of a Shakespearean drama, perpetually misunderstood, repeatedly conspired against despite your princely heart?

What would the boy say about the stories you tell? Would he ask for them because they are true and good and a comfort on the road, or would he say, “No. In the stories we’re always helping people and we don’t help people?”

I have a boy (two, actually). He is four, and he is beginning to look back and forth between the stories that I tell and the memories that he knows. I am teaching him how to think about himself in relation to his world, whether I like it or not.

Those little boy muscles straining in his back against the weight of a full beach bucket will grow, are growing even now as he breathes in his sleep, into the sinewy strength of a man, for good or for ill or for naught. My stories will set the carriage of his face and the lean of his mind, until the day comes when his boy has become my man. So what stories do I want to him to hear? And how closely do I want those stories to fit reality?

I want the boy to hear that we are the kind of people who help, that we are the kind of men that a traveller will thank God for having brought him to because we are keeping the flame (McCarthy’s phrase and mine). And I want those stories to fit what he sees. I want him to see not that we are as selfish as post-apocalyptic cannibals, but that we carry neighborly love, chivalry, and the clean fear of God like a lantern on a midnight highway.

Those are the stories I want to tell. And those are the only stories I have room to live, God help me.

16 July 2011

Stand Firm in the Phalanx

The Philippian Phalanx
The apostle Paul writes the following in Philippians 1:27-30.
Only this: in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ must you conduct your citizenship, so that coming and seeing you, or being away and hearing about you, I may hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, together contending in the faith of the gospel, not being startled in any way by those who are set in opposition.

Stand firm. The city of Philippi was named after Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Now Philip was famous for his innovation in a particular mode of infantry warfare: the phalanx. The phalanx was a formation in which the soldiers would form a human wall by locking their massive shields together, while the soldiers who were immediately behind them thrust their spears over the top, and the soldiers who were behind them would brace the whole line and help it to stand firm. So they would advance, pushing forward step by step, until they met resistance, and together stood firm.

Paul tells the Philippians then to stand firm in one spirit, probably meaning the Holy Spirit. So stand firm in one Spirit, with one mind, just as the phalanx stood firm, with one mind, with singular intention, together contending like soldiers, side by side, in the faith of the gospel, not being startled in any way by those who are set in opposition.

And then, Paul says,
This is to them an omen of destruction, but to you, of salvation, and this from God.

This is a call for Christian men to stand firm, to lock shields with one another and build their courage in the confidence of the gospel.

Attitude is everything. When a smaller army meets a larger army with confidence, fearlessly daring great deeds, standing firm with one mind, striving side-by-side, not being startled in any way by the more imposing force, something happens. A question is placed in the mind of the larger army: “Why aren’t they afraid? Why are they so confident?” They start to look around. “Is there something we don’t know? Are reinforcements on their way? Have we been outflanked?”

Stand together in the Spirit, Paul says, and it will create a question in the minds of the opposition, even while increasing the certainty in your own. Although your forces may seem small, and your power insignificant, you belong to a most honored and select group.
For it has been given to you for the sake of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,  having the same struggle which you saw in me and now hear in me.

Join in the struggle for the gospel. Start a weekly prayer time with your fellow men, on a regular morning before work. Set aside 30 minutes together to share your life and to pray. Take your place in the phalanx and stand firm with your brothers in Christ.

To catch up on Training Episode 1, go here.

14 July 2011

I Have Learned the Secret

Seneca, a Stoic contemporary of Paul's
There are two kinds of men in this world, and every one of us is a combination of these two types. First, there is the man who looks for contentment in his circumstances. Wherever he goes and whomever he is with, he is constantly sculpting his circumstances in search for contentment, perpetually dissatisfied, like a bird that spends all day sculpting its nest but never sits down to sing.

But there is another kind of man, the man who does not look for contentment in his circumstances, but carries contentment with him, spreading it like sunshine wherever he goes and to whomever he is with.

Don’t you want to be more like that second man? Don’t you want to be the man who carries contentment with him? But where do you find such contentment? Where do you find the magic in life, the spark, so that regardless of where you live, whether it be a downtown apartment or the French countryside, you will carry contentment with you? What is the secret?

I have learned, Paul writes in Philippians 4, 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...

What was this secret that Paul had learned? If we were to ask the soldiers who stood watch over him, “What makes this man content?” what would they say?

Would they say perhaps, that Paul’s contentment came from his self-sufficiency?

Now the Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day had much to say about self-sufficiency. According to their philosophy, the wise man should seek to sever himself, through long training, from all dependence on human society or material goods, until he had risen to a level of independence comparable to the gods themselves. Was this the secret, then? Was the contentment that Paul had learned the same as this Stoic self-sufficiency?

It certainly looked the same, at least on the outside. The philosophers spoke of strengthening the mind by disciplining the body, and so did Paul. The philosophers spoke of living above one’s material circumstances, and so did Paul. So what was the difference? How was the secret that Paul had found any different from that of the philosophers? Paul himself reveals the answer.

I can do everything through him who strengthens me.

This is the heart of Paul’s secret, and this was the difference between Paul and his philosophical contemporaries. Whereas the Stoic philosophers looked for strength from within, Paul found strength from without, from the one he names in Philippians 4:13 as “him who strengthens me.”

You then, my son, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Be that second man, look to him for your contentment, and carry it with you wherever you go.

Listen to the podcast version of this post here.

To catch up on Training Episode 2, go here.

12 July 2011

How do you get respect?

Lady Virtue, Celsus Library, Ephesus
Whatever is true, says the apostle, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever tends toward love, whatever is commendable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, ponder such things.

This is a list of virtues. Now the thing about lists like this is that they were very common in the Roman world. Plato, who lived four hundred years before the apostle, wrote about the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and moderation. And his student, Aristotle, elaborated on those four with his own list of virtues.

The point here is that when Paul speaks about what is true, noble, just, pure and tending toward love, he is appealing to values that every Roman citizen would have wanted to be known for.

How do you become one of those people that everyone seems to regard with genuine respect? How do you move through life with such integrity that even when something catches you off guard, you naturally react with virtue? How do you live like Jesus, being the same person, in every moment, no matter what the situation?

Whatever is true: You fill your mind with truth, so that you become a lover of the truth, so that your character becomes more honest.

Whatever is noble: You fill your mind not with the low and vulgar thoughts that make up so much of our culture, but with noble thoughts, things that are high and lofty, things that make you want to walk with dignity.

Whatever is pure: You fill your mind with things that inspire you to treat women not with selfishness and lust, but with chivalry and virtue.

Whatever tends toward love: Even as you think about the people that you live with and work with, you do not dwell on the things about them that tend to lead you to anger, but on the things about them that tend toward love. Dwell on those things that give reason not for bitterness, but affection.

Do you want to become the kind of person who is spoken well of by all people? Then fill your mind with things that are spoken well of by all people.

Ponder such things. Be like Jesus, walking into the mountains by night, to be alone for prayer and meditation on the word of God. Be like Paul, bending all the powers of your God-given intellect (we all have one) toward the consideration of how the gospel should affect your daily life.


Set aside a daily time: fifteen uninterrupted minutes. Give the first five minutes to prayer, just talking to God. Give the second five minutes to a careful reading of some brief passage of Scripture. Then give the last five minutes to quietly meditating on that passage, on what is excellent, on what is praiseworthy in what you have read. Fifteen minutes.

Enter this program of training, and take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of you.

Listen to the podcast version of this post here.