Saturday, March 26, 2011

great translations 2

Eugene Peterson has a Masters degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. As such, his modern translation of the Bible, called "The Message", is just that, a translation, not a paraphrase. It is not a more literal word-for-word translation like, say, the NASB or ESV. Indeed, that is not necessarily the best way to communicate God's truth to generations thousands of years removed from the events the Bible describes. Eugene's is a "dynamic equivalence" translation. All that means is he tries to communicate God's truth with the same sense and effect it would have had on its hearers 2000 years ago. You do that by asking yourself, "If Jesus was walking the streets of America or Canada or the UK or the world today, in 2011, and saying the same things we read about in the Bible - how would he say the things we're used to hearing him say? How would he put it? What expressions would he use? What sort of slang or colloquialisms?"

Bottom line: How would he talk to us so it hit with the same force as it hit the Greeks and Romans and Jews of 30 AD?

For instance, if someone comes up to me and calls me a "swank", what on earth does he mean? That was an expression commonly used early in the 20th century. If someone translated that literally to me I would still end up with the word swank and have to look it up - it means a "show off". A translation that strove for "dynamic equivalence" would not try to use the exact word the original used because that would not have the same effect on a 21st century listener. So, depending on the culture the translator is aiming at, he or she might use the expression "strutting his stuff", or "proud as a peacock", or "you're so vain", or simply "flaunt". To say "someone that shows off" does not have the same force. It's accurate to a point, but the word "swank" had more punch to it when it was used in the 1920s and 30s. (If you've seen the film "Chariots of Fire" one of the Cambridge students calls Abrams a swank just before he attempts to beat the clock in his race around the quad. He could have said, "Abrams, you're just a show off," but swank had more bite to it.)

So, without further ado, here is Eugene's wonderful translation, from New Testament Greek, of Philippians 4:6&7 -

"Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life."


pura vida quote 1

Don't read the Bible for information. Read it for relationship. What you need to know and what you need to learn the Holy Spirit will make clear to you and teach you, whether swiftly and in the moment, or slowly and over time. But make sure you come to the Bible to meet God and love him and worship him - don't come for data or statistical analysis or argument fodder or a printout of God's schematic for your life and the future of the planet. Come for him and everything else you need will fall into place at the proper time.

Friday, March 25, 2011

the book God wrote

Much has been said about 66 books (more if you're Catholic or Orthodox) that sound like they came from the pen - or keyboard - of the same writer. I had a Jewish drama teacher whose wife told me that very thing when I was a divinity student at Acadia University in eastern Canada, not far from Maine and the New England states. She didn't know such an observation, that she came to on her own without any coaching, was already a cliche within evangelical and small "o" orthodox circles.

Just as much has been said about the collage of villains and heroes in the Bible, the high amount of poetry (so much of it powerful and beautiful and even romantic), history dipped in warfare and blood, stories like a show from CSI:Miami, Law and Order, or Criminal Minds, overflowing with murder and cruelty and deadly rage.

Much more has been said about how God shows up in all the stories - even in Esther where he's never mentioned once yet looms large in the background and foreground - ever-present in the tales of villainy and savagery and deceit where he yet molds lives and shapes events, just as he is evident in the tales of goodness and gentleness and honesty, bringing his Kingdom to earth.

If any people should be the people of poetry, history, biography, story (even the hard stories which yet have a moral intent) it should be the Christians, because that's the book God gave us, that's the script we learn from, that's the screenplay we act out of every day of our lives until the end of the age. And sometimes we act like people who have the book God wrote and sometimes we don't.

Sometimes we memorize it, but never live it, as if having the content stored in our head and never using it is enough.

Sometimes we venerate it, place it on an altar or podium in our churches, opening it to a certain page for display purposes, kissing it, genuflecting before it, honoring it, yet only reading certain parts of it we like over and over again, ignoring the rest.

Sometimes we treat it like a Wikipedia article, going to it for information, going to it for instruction, going to it like we go to a manual for our car or our TV/DVD combo or our software program. James 4:12 fixes this, Genesis 40:35 fixes that, John 12:11 straightens out that glitch in the system.

And that's where we go wrong. We think knowing the chapter and verse is enough, we think knowing which passages speak to what issues is enough, we think having the knowledge and content is enough. Just like any other book or textbook or troubleshooting manual.

It might be enough if the book of God were just a book like any other, just a combination of paper and ink or a mix of digital words on a cell phone screen or iPad or laptop.

But it's a spirit thing, not simply a knowledge and memory thing. It's a living thing, a God thing, a holy thing. It is a dynamic that occurs every time we read it, a dynamic that challenges and changes us when conditions are right, and those conditions include being open to and listening to and pondering and obeying the very words of the very real God. Even when conditions aren't right, and our hearts are hard to the voice and syllables of God, stuff still happens. Because it's not a fix-it manual or a recipe or a formula we can learn, master, manipulate to our own ends, or control. It's the living word of the Living Word and ultimately it masters us and turns us inside-out. It's a force in our lives, not a static or placid thing. It's Christ the Lion of Judah, it's Christ the Tiger, it's the Wind of the Spirit, it's the very Fire of God.

Be wary of it. Be in awe of it. Delight yourself in it. Run from it, if you choose to run. But don't ever think it's ink on a page or digital info on a screen. It's alive.

And it's relationship. You come to it to hear God, hear yourself echoed in other characters, to respond with your own words and prayers and hopes and fears. You are in communion with God - not reading a book like any other. You are relating to the living God and he is relating to you. It is an interaction, a communication, a person-to-person dialog. The Bible is a conversation with God that never ends. Never. For even on the other side, you will converse with and enjoy being in relationship to the Living Word who is Christ.

So much dysfunction in our churches comes because people think using it as a tool, a weapon, or a reservoir of knowledge is enough. They think spouting off the verses like a fighter jet's machine guns is enough. They think knowing the words and knowing the doctrines and pumping the book for information is enough. Imagine saying you knew your closest friend because you knew their birth date and favorite foods and where they'd lived and what they thought about certain movies or political parties. If you talked like that about them or in front of them it would say nothing about their heart and soul or if you had an intimate and meaningful relationship with them, understood some of their deepest feelings and deepest hopes.

The same is true of God. Do we meet him in his book and learn to value him as Lord and Friend in great intimacy and openness - or is it a book of facts and data we can use to prop up our own viewpoints or doctrines or arguments or beliefs? Is it a device or the living words of a living Person? Is it a mechanism? A instrument to be used regardless of the disposition or spiritual depth of the person using it? Or is the book about spirit and living in the spirit and can it only be fully understood if the person interacting with it is doing so not simply in a head moment, but a heart and head and spirit moment?

God is spirit. How can his words be anything less?

God is spirit. Those that approach him, those that honor and worship him, must do so in spirit and in truth.

God is spirit. Those that listen to his words and respond to them must also do so in spirit and in truth.

Seizing his words in fleshly fists and hurling them like earthly stones is not it and in doing so they cease to become his words, they lose their holy spirit.

Using his words like a bandaid to try and repair one spiritual or mental or even physical problem is not it. For God's words always treat the whole man or the whole woman or they are not his words. "Your faith has saved you. Go to the priests and show them your healing from leprosy." "Your sins are forgiven you. Rise up and walk." "She has been forgiven much because she has loved much."

Taking bits and pieces of his words to fix life's glitches, and doing so without prayer or faith or attempts at faith, doing so without any spirit or Holy Spirit whatsoever, is not it. This approach has caused horrendous damage in families and faith communities.

Every time you open the book of God you open a mystery.

Every time you open the book of God you enter into a spiritual reality which cannot be understood without acting out of your own spiritual reality.

Every time you open the book of God you open up eternity.

Every time you open the book of God you open up a conversation with the living God of heaven and earth, Alpha and Omega, holder of the keys of death and hell, the Creator and Sustainer of all Reality, the Redeemer of all life. Do not take it lightly, as many do, simply flipping through the pages to find the verse they want to prove the point they wish to make - without involving faith or love or commitment or humility - or even God.

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path."

"I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free."

If you wish to say, as Jesus did, "It is written," be sure that the words on the screen you quote or on the piece of white paper you have memorized, are first of all written on your heart.

On my heart.

On the hearts of all who believe.

This creates a different person, a different church, a different Christianity.

It gives the world a far better chance of hearing the real words of the real God in spirit and in truth and finding themselves touched by the Spirit of God and transformed.

As you once were when the words entered your ears and fell upon your heart.

And spirit gave birth to spirit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I Need Your Help

Hey, everyone, I get all kinds of personal emails from readers thanking me for various books or wanting to discuss something I've written. This is great and long may it continue.

However, usually the same sort of thing doesn't carry over onto sites where my books are sold online. A few endorsements help new readers find their way to what I've written and also to this website. It also encourages publishers to invest in publishing more things that I've authored and not just what I've done, but anything others have written that is in a similar vein. It's a matter of being able to connect with others when we have a common vision of our spiritual journey and Christ.

So it makes a big difference when you tell others something worked for you.

If you'd like to help out in this important area please go to, look up my name, find the book that helped you out, and tell others about it. It not only supports my writing. It supports the publishers in the USA, the UK, and CAN who print my books and print the writing of other less well-known writers. We are all trying to follow God with our pens and hearts and minds. We want to make a difference in people's lives and in the world. Help us do that. Help me do that.

Thanks! And God bless!

great translations 1

Here is a familiar passage from Luke translated from the Greek by JB Phillips during the Second World War. He wrote his translation of the New Testament to make the Scriptures more accessible to Londoners daily battered by German bombing raids.

This translation brought the passage home to me far more than any other has ever done. I had to ask myself as I read it last night before bed: "Can I say what Mary said? Am I that ready for whatever God brings my way or whatever he asks me to do?"

And let's not romanticize this story too much. While Mary was indeed honored and blessed, she was also being called upon to make a personal sacrifice in the service of Almighty God and the salvation of the human race. "A sword shall pierce your heart," Simeon warned her. And it did. Among other things she could not understand about her son's life, she watched in great pain as her firstborn bled to death. It was on a cross of execution reserved for only the worst criminals.

Luke 2:38:

"I belong to the Lord, body and soul," replied Mary, "let it happen as you say."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Highway (chapter 3)


Later, when he thought back, Milwaukee would wonder why the bishop and ministers had said nothing to him about Tabitha. By ten in the morning when they met with him they would have known, but they did not speak a word concerning the missing girl, even though they must have realized there was a close friendship between Tabitha’s older sister and himself. But no, they had asked him about his Rumspringa habits of the past two years, if he could give up movies and motorbikes, if he was ready to follow Christ as a true believer and be baptized into the Amish faith and settle down in Marietta.
“Esau tells us you are good with the horses and the hooves and the horseshoes, so?” said Bishop Eby.
“I love the work,” Milwaukee replied.
“Of course Esau may never retire. Then what will you do for a job?”
Milwaukee was surprised by the question. “I – I’m not sure. I suppose I would help my father with the dairy herd like my two older brothers. It’s just that I was hoping to do something – a little different – ”
The bishop and pastors had smiled. “We only pull the good leg, eh, Master Bachman,” the bishop said. “When we spoke with Esau about all this he admitted he wanted to slow down and spend more time with his grandchildren.”
“Slow down?” Milwaukee raised his eyebrows. “He said that?”
“Ja, it is surprising. He may even mean it. We think you are all right on that score. But you, the bike, can you put it aside and come back to the horse and buggy?”
Milwaukee shrugged. “I have enjoyed the bike as most Amish have enjoyed the plowshare. But it matters more to me to be among you, to live and die among you, as one of you, not live a life as an outsider.”
“Yes?” challenged one of the pastors, Dorcas Smucker’s father.
“Yes.” Milwaukee responded with some strength.
The bishop ran his stubby fingers through a long gray beard and nodded.
It was Esau who wound up telling him about Tabitha when Milwaukee showed up at his house just before noon once the meeting with the leadership had concluded. He always had lunch with Esau and his wife and after they ate he and Esau usually headed out to the stables. This time the older man paused under a shade tree, took off his black hat, and wiped his forehead with a red bandana.
“It is warm for May.”
“It is,” Milwaukee agreed.
“The flies will drive the horses crazy.” He put his hat back on and looked at the dozen or so mares and geldings in his pasture. “Tabitha Troyer began her Rumspringa yesterday.”
“Yes, I know.”
“So she never came home.”
Milwaukee was surprised. “Not at all? What about Nick Ferley?”
“No. He did not return home either.”
“Nick and Tabitha – they did not call? The Troyers have heard nothing from Tabitha’s English friends?”
Esau took off his hat again as if the news was too solemn to permit him to wear it. “There is no word.” He looked at Milwaukee. “I think you should go to the Troyer home.”
Milwaukee felt the same way, but realistically what could he do except say words that might lighten their hearts for few seconds? “I don’t think I can make much of a difference. What they need is Tabitha back. Someone needs to go out and look for her. The police need to go out and look for her.”
Esau nodded, still gazing at the horses. “There is work in the stables to do. But the Troyers need God’s people now while she is missing. It will not be so important once she has returned to them.” He put his hat back on his head. “Speaking into the Troyers’ hearts is also holy work for a farrier. Did you walk?”
“Come. We’ll hitch my gelding to the buggy.”
It took only ten minutes to reach the Troyer house. As they pulled into the drive the sheriff’s car was just coming down the lane. He gave them a nod and turned onto the main road. Mr. Troyer was still standing in the yard.
“God be with you, Simon,” said Esau. “We have heard about Tabitha and wish to pray with you and your wife.”
“Come into the house, both of you. There is coffee. Rebecca is with a few of the women in the back. We won’t bother them.”
He looked very tired as he turned to walk up the steps to the porch, his legs moving slowly and his hand resting on the railing for support. Halfway up he looked back at Milwaukee. “Perhaps you should talk with Michal. You are friends. Of course there is coffee here at the table for you. But if you would spend a few minutes with her.”
“Of course, Mr. Troyer. Is she in the house?”
Michal’s father jerked his head in the direction of the barn.
She was rubbing down Sprinkles with a brush, slowly and rhythmically. Old Brownie was at her feet and Kitkat was curled up next to the bloodhound’s chest. The horse stood quietly, now and then swinging its head back and biting at a fly that had made its way through the barn door. Michal was wearing a dark blue dress with a black apron and a white prayer Kapp. She kept her back to Milwaukee even though he knew she had heard his footsteps on the boards and straw. He removed his broad-brimmed black hat and held it in his hands. A shaft of sunlight, full of spinning bits of dust, covered Michal’s arms and the small spots on the horse’s back.
“Tabitha did not run away,” she said in a quiet voice that nevertheless made Sprinkles prick up her ears. “People that run do not wait to say goodbye. She could have slipped out at three in the morning. Nick could have met her a quarter mile down the road. No one would have heard a thing. But she let us see her, him, the bike. She kissed all of us, waved to the boys, spent time with Sprinkles. Now I see what she was doing. Not running. But going. Truly going and not coming back.”
Milwaukee stayed where he was. “Have you heard from her at all?”
“Not us. But Sheriff Bueller has. For him she is 16, it is a Rumspringa thing. Unless a law is broken she is an adult and making her own decisions. But to be sure there was nothing of the abduction in her disappearance, the sheriff put out a notice. Police in Virginia pulled them over.”
“They were almost in the Carolinas. The sheriff said they took the 95 south from Philly. State police told him the two were fine and she was obviously happy to be with Nick and on the road. There was no sign of duress or that she was being forced to remain in Nick’s company against her will. Really, there was no reason at all for the state troopers to detain them. They weren’t even speeding and they were riding in compliance with Virginia motorcycle laws. But Tabitha agreed to talk with Sheriff Bueller so they patched her through.”
Michal found some mud on one of Sprinkles’ legs and picked up an oval currycomb in the straw. She began to rub at the gray dirt to loosen it. Milwaukee waited.
“So?” Michal spoke up again. “She tells Bueller it would have been much too difficult to have told us what she planned to do. There would have been tears, perhaps a fight with mother and father. She wanted to leave in peace and love and that was how she did leave. Yes, she knew it would be hard on us once we realized she was gone, and she was half-expecting the police to pull them over before they vanished into the Great Smoky Mountains, but she felt that was still better than a big scene at the house with the boys watching all the anger and pain.”
She put down the currycomb and picked up the brush once more. Dust raced about furiously in the sunlight as she applied it vigorously to the horse’s leg.
“St. Nick had left a note for his parents, hoping to spare them some of the shock, but they never found it until an hour ago. So not so bad a boy, hm? The sheriff told me I was to look under Tabitha’s pillow. Do you see that paperback on the stool near the door?”
Milwaukee picked the book up. It was well thumbed. The cover showed an old man with a dog sitting on a grassy knoll. The title was Travels with Charley, In Search of America. He flipped through the first few pages. At the front was an inscription written in flawless handwriting: Meet me and God in Arizona. Seriously. Love, Tabitha.
Michal finally glanced back at him. “You are looking very plain today.”
“Yes. It is an ‘almost Amish’ day.”
“How did your talk with Bishop Eby go?”
“It went well.”
“So. At least your world is right-side up.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Oh!” burst Michal. “Don’t be sorry! Why should you be sorry that your head is screwed on right?” She dropped down in the straw, tears cutting across her face. He stepped toward her, but she quickly put up her hand. “No, no, stay where you are, last night was enough, more than enough. I let things go too far. We have no future together. What is the point? You are Amish, I am not. You belong here, I don’t. But where shall I go?” She sank her head into her hands. “She makes it sound so easy. Arizona might as well be on the moon.”
“It’s not so far, Michal – ”
She snapped her head up and glared at him through her swollen eyes and tears. “So I will also vanish down the highway on the back of someone’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle? And then what? Mother and father have no more daughters. They worry themselves sick and before I return they are dead and buried from grief. How can I go now? How can I head out into this big, beautiful world of yours and find this me, myself and I who is missing or find this God I have lost sight of? Impossible. Truly, it would kill them. I am stuck here.” She put her head down again. “But do not get your hopes up. Not for you to marry and kiss goodnight. I would not wish that on my best friend and you are my best friend, Milwaukee. I would make you miserable – half of me here, half of me there, a bit of me gone east, another bit gone north. I’m the girl who’s all over the map. No, I do not inflict myself on you any further. Get baptized and find a good Amish woman, really, a good one, hardworking, pretty, committed to God, head over heels in love with you, okay? Find her and build a life on the Susquehanna. I’ll stay in this house and be the Amish Jungfer, the spinster, take care of my parents, read postcards from Tabitha who will be in Paris or Barcelona or Rome. Maybe the pieces shall come together for me that way and God bestow his blessing. Who knows? But you go, go now, yes, go.”
Milwaukee was stunned by the turn of events that had completely altered his relationship with Michal from the night before. “I – don’t know what to tell you. I wish we could pick up where we left off last night.”
“Well, we can’t!” she almost shouted.
“I am fond of you, Michal.”
But she did not respond or raise her head.
“I will pray for you,” he murmured, not knowing what else to say.
“Good. Pray all you want. Surely God will listen to you where he will not listen to me. Fast, pray, sing hymns. But just go now. Go, go.”
Milwaukee placed the paperback back on the stool.
Her head came up, the tears still running from her eyes. “Did you see what she did with the cover?”
Milwaukee, who felt like his chest was full of lead, glanced at the book. “No.”
“The title. She crossed out the C in Charley.”
He looked more closely and realized the cover said Travels with Harley, In Search of America. She saw his smile and laughed a little. “Cute?”
He nodded. “Sure, cute.” But inside himself it was still gray and heavy and dark. She saw that too, she knew what it was that came bleakly out of his eyes, but there was nothing she could do about it. Life was what it was that afternoon and she could not mould it into the shape she wished.
Ah, but I have hurt you badly. I am sorry, so sorry, to pass on the pain, but I am filled to the brim and it just spurts out of me. Goodbye, my once upon a time friend.
Milwaukee left the barn, placed his hat on his head, and started down the lane. He had not gone a hundred feet before the door to the house opened and Michal’s father leaned out.
“Master Bachman. Come and have that coffee now.”
“Oh, danke, but I must get on.”
Mr. Troyer beckoned with his hand. “Please, I have a favor to ask of you, a very big favor. Come. Come.”
He waited in the doorway until Milwaukee reached him. “And my daughter is how?”
“Not so good, Mr. Troyer. I’m afraid I was not able to help her much.”
“You don’t know. With Michal, you think it is a no, a day or two later and she is telling you it was always yes, that you misinterpreted her.”
Esau nodded as Milwaukee took off his hat and sat at the kitchen table. Mr. Troyer stood over him.
“So. Coffee? Cold buttermilk? Lemonade?”
“You know, Mr. Troyer, I think a glass of buttermilk.”
He set a glass by Milwaukee’s hand and then brought a ceramic pitcher from the icebox and poured. Milwaukee drank half of it off in one swallow. Mr. Troyer filled his glass a second time.
“Gute?” he asked Milwaukee, pleased at the young man’s thirst.
“Sehr gute. Danke schoen.”
Mr. Troyer sat down. “Such a day to wake up to. This is why we must always surround ourselves with prayer. Only God knows what is coming along the fence line so it is best to remain close by his side.”
Esau murmured amen.
Michal’s father tapped a finger on the tabletop. “So what does the sheriff tell me, young man? Did my daughter explain?”
“But she did not tell you this other because she had already gone off to the barn. Daniel Bueller looks me in the eye and tells me not to think of going and getting Tabitha and bringing her back here. She is an adult he says a hundred times. I bring her back to Marietta against her will and it is abduction. Kidnapping. The law will arrest me. A father tries to rescue his youngest daughter, but this is a crime. How does that sit with you?”
Milwaukee said nothing.
Mr. Troyer continued to tap his finger. “What does he think? I will mount a posse as if I live my life in the middle of a John Wayne western? I, who have no car, no truck, will catch up to her? I, who own no weapons, will put a gun to young Nicholas’ head and order him back to Pennsylvania? I understand the only way in which I can influence my daughter and her boyfriend is to reason with them. Come, let us reason together, saith the Lord. Only this holy reasoning and prayer can turn the two of them around. The prayer can be done from anywhere. I do not need to leave Marietta to pray for my youngest daughter. But the reasoning – how shall this be accomplished? There is no telephone, we have no idea if she will write, and even if she writes, how do we write back to someone who is in Pennsylvania one day and North Carolina the next? What do you think?” He looked at Milwaukee.
Milwaukee was holding his empty glass. “I don’t know, sir.”
“Even while the sheriff is warning me about what I cannot do I am thinking and praying about what is possible. How can I talk to her? How can I reason with her?” He looked at Milwaukee more closely. “So?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Troyer.”
“I cannot. It is simple. I cannot. In her present state of mind she will not reason with me.” The finger tap. “But her sister she will listen to anytime.” He glanced across the room at nothing and nodded. “Michal can reason with Tabitha.” He stared at Esau and then at Milwaukee. Raising his hands he moved them together slowly and deliberately until the fingers were interlaced with one another. “How to bring them together?”
The grandfather clock struck four in the afternoon. Mr. Troyer waited until the final gong was finished, running his hand over his mouth and dark beard. Then he got up, brought glasses for Esau and himself along with the pitcher of cool buttermilk, and poured enough for all three to have a good drink. Then he sat down, sipped at his glass, and leaned back in his chair.
“But,” he began again, “there will of course need to be more prayer to God Almighty, more discussion amongst the people. My wife I must speak with, and Bishop Eby, and Pastor Smucker, and the others in leadership. Your parents must be consulted, Master Bachman, and yourself naturally, as well as the one you are apprenticed to here, Esau. And Michal, I will hear what my eldest has to say, yes, much talk, much prayer, nothing is well that that is done hastily.” He seemed to drift off, staring past Esau and Milwaukee and through the wall on the other side of the kitchen. Then suddenly he learned forward and grasped Milwaukee’s arm, his dark eyes only inches from the young man’s face, fingers digging into skin and bone with a desperate strength.
“But this, this,” he said with an intensity that almost frightened Milwaukee, “it comes to this. For the love of Christ, I ask you not to take your vows this month, not to be baptized, to forego joining the Amish faith. I know it is too much, far too much for you to consider, but it is a father who asks, yes, begs, for this same love of Christ, that you take that motorcycle of yours and go out on the highways and back roads of America, for as long as you must, until you find my daughter. And I ask you to take Michal, my Michal, on what I know can only be a very hard and long road, with you.”
Milwaukee was stunned. “I’m sorry, Mr. Troyer. Am I hearing you right? You cannot be serious, can you?”
Mr. Troyer locked his eyes on Milwaukee’s, his fingers still gripping the young man’s arm. “There are very few things I have been more serious about. I plead with you – go, take your motorbike, and find Tabitha.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011


A while back I wrote a blog (who invented that term anyway? - it sounds like something fat and slobbish - it certainly has no poetry about it) and that particular blog was about "speaking light into darkness" - at the time I told a person who commented on the blog I had more I'd like to say on the subject & I'd say it the next day - well, this is the "next day" many days later :o)

It sort of ties into the blog on creation for these reasons: both are subjects rarely studied in church groups and the first time God speaks in the Bible is at the time of creation and at the moment of the creation of light - FIAT LUX! (in Latin, the language of Europe for centuries) - "Let there be light!"

Really. Think about it. You've done Bible studies on love, on marriage, on the attributes of God, the gifts of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit, spiritual warfare, the healings of Jesus, the missionary journeys of Paul, but whenever have you done a study just on light?

Yet we all know some of the great verses on light: "your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path"/ "every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows"/ "you are the light of the world"/ "the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never overcome it"/ "the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world"/ "while I am in the world I am the light of the world" . . .

I am not sure why this is, why we have studies on so many subjects but not on light, which certainly, like love, is of the very essence of God and Christ. Perhaps some of you have had such studies and, if so, please let me know about it. But even I, who rejoice in light, physically and spiritually and emotionally, as much as I rejoice in liberty and love, have never done such a study, alone or with others.

However I intend to rectify that. Conveniently, in my part of the world, the clocks "spring" ahead one hour tonight (March 12-13), so that six AM will really be five AM and there will be less light flooding my morning windows. Conversely, though, the evenings will retain light longer, since six PM will really be five PM. In addition, the days are growing longer and longer until the longest day of the year in my hemisphere, June 21st. So all kinds of light will be pouring over me. A perfect time to look to that long neglected study on the theme of light in the Bible.

Now some of you live in regions of enormous light - California, Mexico, New Mexico, Nevada. Well, all the more reason to do the study too, if you've never done it, and we can compare notes on what God has shown us in the weeks and months ahead. There is so much spiritual darkness all around us and leaking into us it seems to me to be a vital thing to dwell on the light of God in his Word. It's something that can dispel our own shadows and gloom and dissolve our fears.

From Psalm 139: "Even the darkness is light to you!"

Let's do this thing and then let's share together what we've found and learned in the light of God.

Friday, March 11, 2011

steve bell

I finally got to my first Steve Bell concert even though I've been listening to his music for years.

He has surrounded himself with a fine band and one of the things that differentiates his concerts from others is the amount of time given over to instrumentals and jamming - he often just lets the band play in addition to singing his songs of faith and Christ journey.

It was a solid two hour concert, no breaks, and what with all the lyrics and music and humor and stories and chit-chat, by the end I came away with the feeling I'd just sat in on a concert in my living room - it was that real and down to earth and full of peace, God's peace.

I appreciated his appeal for real love and real Christianity among politicians in Canada and the US and his musings on love as the essential nature of God, a love wrapped up in, not divorced from, his holiness, which is also nothing less than a holiness of love.

He also spoke a lot about kindness which is actually the name of his new CD. So the spirit of the entire evening was given over to good will, good heart, good soul, and our good God.

Steve is not heading into America on this winter tour but he will, very shortly, be hitting Calgary and Edmonton and Vancouver, and possibly Kelowna and Kamloops and Abbotsford and Victoria as well. I haven't seen his itinerary, which I'm sure is online, but I do know he is heading west from Lethbridge, the city where I heard him sing of Christ and faith and struggle and joy last night, the 10th of March.

The batch of songs and musicians he has put together - take note of his piano player Mike Janzen - is well worth the price of admission. It's like buying a ticket to sit in a garden of particularly rare and beautiful orchids in order to take in the entire, wonderful ambiance of the setting.

So if you're free, treat yourself to a tall cup of spiritual peace. Indeed, treat your soul.

The music and words will bathe your spirit and bring you to a place of restoration.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

the white birds of morning - a stand alone?

People have asked if this is a stand alone novel. There is generally enough background given in White Birds that anyone could pick it up, read it, and grasp the essentials of the story that precedes this novel. However, to understand White Birds better and to appreciate the story in-depth it would probably be a good idea to read the first book, Zo, which is available on Amazon or by special order from your local bookstore - unless your brick and mortar store is so cool and non-mainstream it has copies in stock.

I have called Zo and White Birds the first two volumes in a trilogy. I have to tell you now though that the story has expanded to the point where it will probably wind up being a quartet of novels, with volumes three and four still to come over the next few years. Volume three will likely cover 1944 to 1950. This is what can happen in fiction - a germinal idea can grow into a tree and then into a forest as you write.

Copies of the White Birds should be available soon. (I don't even have any yet.) The first copies have only been published within the past ten days to two weeks.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Highway to God (chapter 2)

Michal sat in the dark of the Hollywood & Vine movie theater in Lancaster City and held Milwaukee’s hand while she ate from the bucket of popcorn that was wedged between them. It was a double feature. The first film was The Witness. She’d already seen the movie twice. It never failed to amaze her that Kelly McGillis didn’t leave the Amish for a life with Harrison Ford. On the other hand, the blonde Amish man that liked her was not bad looking. Of course, Ford’s character wasn’t a Christian and Kelly’s, despite her weaknesses, certainly was. So was her sister Tabitha the Kelly McGillis that fell for a man that was English and left the Amish? If so, who was Michal? The Kelly McGillis that stayed and married the Amish man and put down roots?
“The old man is just like Isaac Beachey,” said Milwaukee out loud. “I swear he talks the same, walks the same, acts the same – ”
“Shh!” went someone behind them.
Michal smiled and patted his hand. “Whisper. You said the same thing the last time we watched the movie.”
“Because its true!”
The second film was called The Dove and that one she had never seen before. It was 30 or 35 years old, but a good copy with good color and sound Milwaukee pointed out, this time using a soft voice she scarcely knew he had.
“Not Blu-Ray though,” Michal whispered.
“Whose house could we use that in?” he whispered back. “Rumspringa or not, my parents won’t let me bring a TV home and neither will yours.”
“Have you ever wondered how long this Rumspringa of ours will go on?”
He shrugged.
The film was about a young man named Robin sailing alone around the world. It had a strange effect on her as the hours slipped past and she almost got up and walked out more than once. Green waves, huge blue skies, tall palms, a white sail filled with wind that pushed the young man from country to country and continent to continent and world to world – her feelings alternated between a strong sense of being trapped in Lancaster County and never seeing the open sea or a palm tree and a sense of excitement and freedom and hope. When they walked out of the cinema into the streetlights and darkness a fine rain had fallen. She could smell the wet pavement and a thrill went through her.
They went for pizza and Coke later at Sally & Bo’s 2 for 1 and sat at a black and yellow booth. She told Milwaukee The Dove had upset her one moment and exhilarated her the next.
“What do you think is going on?” she asked.
Milwaukee bit into his Canadian bacon.
“Please don’t say anything with your mouth full,” she chided as he was about to reply.
He rolled his eyes and kept chewing. When he was finished he sipped some Coke. “Can I talk now?”
She made a face.
He picked up another slice of pizza without thinking about it. “Okay, for you, the movie is a big deal, yes? So maybe you want to travel, you know, see the world of the English. It gets your blood pumping. But then you remember you will take your vows and live by the Susquehanna forever. Not so bad, but maybe not so great. This kid sails around the world and you sit on your porch shelling peas for 60 or 70 years, you know?”
Michal felt the rock sinking in her chest again as she had with her sister that morning.
Milwaukee bit into the pizza, glanced at her dark blue eyes, then kept chewing and did not speak until he had swallowed. “You can be very German, you know that?”
“What a surprise. I’m Amish.”
“No, see that’s what you’re not, you’re not Amish.”
“Really? What am I then?”
“You’re in-between. Here in Sally’s you’re almost English with your Coke and pepperoni pizza – which is getting cold.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re always hungry.”
“Apparently tonight I’m otherwise.”
“Another thing that’s German – I’ve never seen you with your hair down.”
“The Amish would say you’re not my husband.”
“Well, we’re friends, right?”
“We agreed on that two months ago.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “This ponytail is all you get.”
He laughed. “See? And now you’re flirting like an English girl.”
“I am not flirting. And how would you know what English girls do?”
“Sally’s is full of them every time we come here.”
Michal lifted her eyebrows. “Studying them, are we?”
He shrugged, ate pizza, swallowed. “So what does it matter to you? We’re friends, not lovers.”
Michal felt blood come to her face. “That is so.”
“Anyway, back to the movie. It had some nice scenery and Deb Raffin was cute, but you know, my mind kept wandering back to Marietta and Esau. This farrier business is fascinating. We had a difficult mare yesterday and he showed me how to lock her leg just so and prevent the girl from kicking my head into next Sunday. The more I learn from him the more I want him to let me do everything, take over all of our people’s farrier work. So I’m watching the movie and not watching the movie at the same time. And I start to think maybe I’m ready to be baptized this Communion, maybe I’m finally ready to be Amish.” He pried another piece of pizza from his plate, deliberately stretching the cheese as far as he could. “But, you know, you’re not, Michal, you’re really not.”
Michal felt her temper rising. “How can you sit there and tell me that? How can you tell me that and – and – ” She stumbled, then suddenly burst out in German, “Zeug Ihr Gesicht mit Pizza!”
“I am stuffing my face with pizza because one of us is hungry.”
“I am as much Amish as you are!”
“No, you’re not. You’re not Amish. And neither am I. This is not a DNA thing. No one is born with an Amish gene. You become Amish, I become Amish, once we take the vows and are baptized. Not before. It’s the heart thing, ja? It’s the soul thing. And judging by your restlessness I am closer to making that commitment than you are.”
Michal curled her hands into fists. “Jericho!” Then she stopped, startled at the word she had just uttered.
He smiled around a mouthful of Canadian bacon and cheddar cheese. “Ah, the forbidden name.”
She dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. Just make the next time you use it you mean it.”
“If there is a next time.”
He nodded. “If there is a next time.”
She stood up. “I will use the restroom. Then I want to walk.”
“All right. Should I get them to box up your pizza?”
“I don’t care. I’ll probably feed it to Old Brownie.”
The restroom was empty and she stared at herself in the mirror. Her mascara was holding up and her eyeliner. But it wouldn’t if she started crying. Call me Milwaukee, he had told her months before. That’s my nickname and it’s where I was born. But if the day ever comes when you are sure – not just think – but are sure you have fallen in love with me. Then. And only then. Please use my Christian name. It was bad enough she had him thinking she was getting more English while he was getting more Amish. Now she had botched the whole name business as well. Where was her head tonight?
He carried the white pizza box with Sally & Bo’s in yellow and black across the lid while they walked up and down the streets of Lancaster. It had begun to rain again, but it was more like a mist and drifted down over the city and the cars and the people. At first they didn’t say much to each other because, Michal knew, it was obvious to Milwaukee that she didn’t want to talk. After five minutes of silence between them, a silence filled by car horns and revving engines and other people’s voices and laughter, she finally reached out her hand and took his. Yes, it was a funny thing, there was not supposed to be a drop of romantic blood in their friendship, yet they had held hands almost from the start and thought nothing of it. Finally she stopped at the Lancaster County Courthouse.
“Let’s sit on the steps under the pillars,” she said quietly.
“Your jeans will get wet.”
“I don’t care.”
“I do.” He peeled off his jean jacket and laid it on the steps.
“Oh, Milwaukee, don’t do that.”
“Sit, please.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Come on. It’s already there waiting for you.”
She sat on the jacket and smiled up at him. “So you’re one of the princes I read about.”
“That’s me.” He sat beside her.
She leaned her head against his shoulder and took his hand again. “Now you’ll be wet.”
“I like the rain.”
“This hardly counts as rain.”
“It’s moisture, isn’t it? That’s enough.”
She sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Mischief – excuse me, Tabitha, who is 16 today and a woman – thinks I need to get out of Lancaster County for a while.”
“All on your own?”
“Oh, no, she thought we might head out together.”
“What about Saint Nick?”
She shrugged in her Lee Stormrider. He reached over and put up the corduroy collar against the mist.
“Well,” he said, “sisters know sisters. And you’re pretty much champing at the bit.”
“You really think so, do you? Just because of the way I reacted to a movie?”
“No, I have seen other things over the past few months.”
She stared up into his face. Small water drops beaded on his smooth white skin. “What things?”
“I don’t know. You seem distracted. At church you don’t sing like you used to.”
“Pardon me?”
“I mean, you are one of the best singers among our people. You’re like a robin or meadowlark. A year ago you used to put everything into your hymn singing. I could pick out your voice even if I couldn’t see your face. Now – the energy isn’t there. It’s like you are just going through the motions.”
She clutched his hand more tightly and felt a coldness in her head and chest. “Not so good.”
“I’m sorry – ”
“Why sorry? It’s true. I know it’s true.”
“I’m sorry that somewhere inside you are not – complete.”
Despite the ice in her body she could not keep herself from smiling. “You were always clever with the words. That is the way to put it all right. I’m not all there.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“But that is what it is. I look out the window when the pastor is preaching and I am gazing at birds or horses or trees. When we pray my mind wanders. When we sing, oh, I used to like to soar when there was the singing, ja? But now, I know the songs, I have heard them all a million times, I want something different, different tunes, different melodies, different words that go with different notes.” She leaned into Milwaukee with a kind of fierceness. “I need to see God in different places. I need to see God with different words and different songs in different places. I need to see myself in different places. What am I going to do?”
Milwaukee said nothing for a few moments. He could see she was crying quietly. Carefully, afraid she might snap at him, he put his arm around her. To his surprise, she accepted the intimacy and drew against him more closely. He fought an overwhelming urge to kiss the top of her head, all shiny and smooth like a black and chrome motorbike beaded with rain. The perfume coming from her hair seemed stronger and richer in the wet. He knew that if she happened to glance up at him with those incredible blue eyes framed in damp black glistening strands of hair, some stuck to the soft skin of her cheeks, he would not be able to stop himself from kissing her on her perfect mouth. Feeling a bit dizzy – dizzy with hormones his sister Katie would tell him – he breathed in and out deeply and slowly and looked at what traffic he could see beyond the high stone sides of the courthouse steps. Then she actually reached up with her fingers and touched his lips and face. It sent waves of shock and delight through him.
“How does a 250cc handle the Interstate?” she asked in a small voice.
“The Rebel?” Despite the wonderful chaos going on in his head he managed a laugh. “You’d be screaming.”
He risked looking at her and it was what he’d feared – she was smiling up at him with eyes that were large and blue and shimmering.
“Take me away,” she said.
He wasn’t sure what to say. “Now?”
“Sure, now. Tomorrow. Next week.” Then she settled her head into his chest again and he was spared the mascara and eyeliner and the blue midnight of her color. “But you won’t do it, will you? You are a good Amish boy. You will go to the bishop and the pastors in a few days and tell them you want to be baptized and join the church. They will talk with you and pray with you and ask around and find that no one has anything against you. Your baptism will be a sure thing. In three weeks they will pour the water over your head.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Of course it’s that easy.” Her voice was muffled by the heavy cotton of his black Honda tee shirt with the white wing. “For you, anyway. Haven’t you attended those special classes with the bishop and ministers for the past couple of months? Haven’t you learned the 18 articles of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith? Haven’t they asked you not to grow your hair out and to stop drinking alcohol and going to parties?”
Milwaukee did not respond.
“So Rumspringa is winding down for you. Soon there will be no Rumspringa. You will be baptized, you will be Amish, you will become our people’s farrier when Esau finally figures out he is 88 and not 18. You are ready to settle in, get married, and grow a beard. For me, it is just the opposite. I don’t want to settle in. I can’t settle in. You said so yourself. My heart is not in it. Even my singing is not singing anymore. You have to stay. I have to go. Didn’t you remind me tonight we are friends, not lovers? So you marry Becky Miller or Sarah Stoltzfus or Dorcas Smucker. I head out on the Interstate. That’s it, that’s the plan, that’s what God has brought to pass.”
Michal was squeezing Milwaukee’s hand so tightly he thought she would break his fingers. But she had nothing more to say and neither did he so the hiss of tires over wet pavement filled up the quiet between them. He held her a little more closely and she did not resist. Finally he did press his lips briefly against her hair and breathe in her perfume and she did not resist that either. Eventually he was the one to break the silence.
“Dorcas Smucker?” he asked her. “Dorcas Smucker?” he repeated.
“Well – ”
“Dorcas Smucker?”
Michal could keep stop herself from giggling. “Perhaps not.”
“Perhaps?” He risked one more kiss to the top of her head and got away with it. “You make it sound like I only want to get baptized because I will drop dead if I don’t get married to someone as swiftly as possible. Marriage has nothing to do with it. I hardly think about marriage.” He felt her shift positions beside him and added quickly, “I think about you. But I hardly ever think about marriage.”
“Because we are friends.”
“Because we are friends and because I want to be Amish and because I want to follow Christ and because I want to be a farrier. That is what my head is filled up with. Not a wedding ceremony. And not Dorcas Smucker.”
“You are going to talk to the bishop soon, aren’t you?”
“And you are so sure you’ve had enough Rumspringa?”
“I guess.”
“No more movies. No more motorbikes.” She suddenly flashed him a grin that reminded him of her sister Tabitha. “No more fooling around with the top of my head.”
He felt his face fill with blood. “That I don’t feel so sure about stopping just when I’ve got started.”
“No?” She reached with her hand and tugged his head down. “If you are going to be Amish soon and I am not we had better find out how we feel about each other before we miss our chance.” Her lips came against his and the warmth and softness made him dizzy again. “How’s that?” she asked.
“Pretty great.”
“Pretty great? Not totally great?” She kissed him again and this time held it longer.
“You’re right,” he said. “Totally great.”
She smiled. “So now I’m hungry. Where is my pizza?”
Milwaukee gave her the soggy box. “The cardboard has had it, but I’m sure the pizza will be okay.”
She lifted the lid and pulled out a piece, then held the box toward him. “Do you want some?”
He shook his head. “I’m the one who’s not hungry now.”
“You? Since when?”
“Since you fooled around with my lips.”
They both laughed.
“Is that all it takes?” she asked, chewing and swallowing.
“You are all it takes.”
“So if I head out on the Interstate, if I really do that, you would miss me?”
“But you still think I should go?”
“Why is that?”
“Because if you stayed here it wouldn’t be the Michal I kissed tonight.”
“Well, it will never be. I change a little every day and so do you.”
“I mean it wouldn’t be you at all. Just like it isn’t you singing anymore or you praying anymore. I’d have lost you just because I talked you into staying here.”
Michal stopped eating her third piece of pepperoni pizza. “So where am I now?”
“Here for a while. But if you stay too long, nowhere.”
“Where do I need to be?”
“Out there.” He waved his hand at the street. “Out there among the English.”
“Where out there?”
“Anywhere. Everywhere.” He kissed her forehead. “Just not here anymore.”
“Never here anymore?”
He kissed her damp black hair two or three times. “Not never. Just not now. You have to go and come back and then it’s you.”
“You sound like my sister.”
“No one ever said Tabitha was stupid. Crazy. Wild. Unpredictable. But lacking in love or passion? Lacking in loyalty? Lacking in brains?” He shook his head as he kissed her hair again.
She smiled. “Are you fooling around with the top of my head?”
“Yeah – baby.”
She grinned and punched his shoulder. “Take the baby home. It’s after one. Sure you don’t want any pizza?”
“How can you ask a man that? My heart is too full to even consider my stomach.”
“Oh, yes?” She got to her feet holding the pizza box. “Maybe you really will miss me.” She bent and picked up his jean jacket and handed it to him. “I told you it would get wet.”
“Everything’s wet. Your lips are wet.”
“And you like them that way?”
“I love them that way.”
Michal gave Milwaukee the box so she could hug his arm with both of hers while they walked back to the movie theater. There was still a fair amount of traffic on the street and headlights constantly flashed over them. Both felt there wasn’t anything else to say so no one made an effort to load the dead space with chatter. When they reached the blue Honda Rebel it glittered under the streetlamps as if it had been washed and waxed.
“Will you miss this?” she asked.
“My bike? Where’s it going?”
“I mean when you become Amish.”
“Oh.” He grinned. “I thought you meant the Interstate.” He hesitated. “Why should I lie to you? I’m not so spiritual that I won’t miss riding.”
“Lots of men and women who are spiritual still ride. Tabitha has told me about all the Christian bike clubs.”
“Amish bike clubs?”
“No. Just plain old garden variety Christian bike clubs – Baptist, Methodist, Four Square, Pentecostal, Alliance, Vineyard, yes, even Mennonite – ”
“All right, all right, don’t make it harder than it already is.” He unlocked one of his saddlebags and gave her a dark blue rain shell with the North Face logo on it. “I’ve only got one of these. Please put it on.”
“What about you?”
“I told you. I like wet.”
She pulled the jacket over her Stormrider while he packed away the pizza box. “The sleeves are too long.”
“Roll them up.”
“And the hood is meant for a giant.”
“Pull on the drawstrings.” He handed her a blue helmet and tugged one down over his own head. “Get on. Let’s go.”
Michal gripped the handles on each side of her seat as they rode out of the city onto the highway. The small drops of rain stung her hands like tiny pebbles. At Roy’s she went into the restroom and wiped off her makeup. She pulled her Amish dress out of the pack she’d stuffed into one of Milwaukee’s saddlebags and crammed her jeans and tee shirt inside instead. Then she did up her hair and put the rain shell and helmet back on.
“My wild Amish girl,” teased Milwaukee when she came back out to the parking lot.
“I’m not Amish, remember?”
“You have fooled everyone.”
“Yes, well, apparently even myself.”
They sped into Marietta and three or four hundred yards from Michal’s home Milwaukee turned off the engine and let the Honda coast. Then he walked it up the road to their lane while she walked beside him. At the turnoff she patted him on the cheek.
“I’m all right. You don’t have to accompany me up to the house.”
“I have done it every other night.”
“But it’s raining more now.”
“I don’t care. I’d rather have the extra five minutes with you.”
At the back door that led to her room she took her pack out of its saddlebag and peeled off the North Face jacket. Then she kissed Milwaukee quickly on the cheek. “Will you stop by tomorrow? I think mama would like you for Saturday supper.”
“Yes. I’ll try.”
“Try? When do you ever say no to one of my mother’s feasts?”
“It wouldn’t be for the food.”
“No?” Her eyes flashed in the rainfall. “I let you fool around with my lips and the top of my head and this is what happens?”
He pulled her into his arms. “Would you feel better if nothing happened?”
She smiled and put her fingers on his mouth. “Shh. Of course not. But perhaps we had better slow down.”
“Slow down? I thought we had to speed up. In a few weeks I’ll be Amish and then we’ll be stuck with a horse and buggy and kissing behind barns and bushes.”
“As opposed to kissing behind my parents’ house or at the Lancaster County Courthouse? Anyway, you are right. We’re running out of time.” She stood on the toes of her boots and kissed him on the mouth with a burst of strength that knocked him backward. She laughed, putting her hand over her mouth. “I don’t think you are ready for me yet. You are right. I need to get on the Interstate. And you need to stay here and pack away more oats.”
“You talk as if I should eat like a horse.”
“Exactly like a horse.”
Michal kissed him briefly on the mouth and then opened the door to her room. She did not expect to see Tabitha in her bed though it would have been a pleasant surprise. They could have talked about their day and their men.
Her head whirled as she dropped it back on the pillow. What had she been thinking? Why had she let Milwaukee kiss her so much? Why had she kissed him so much? She lay on her right side and then on her left. She had been a little reckless. They were friend, they were friends, they were only friends.
I kissed him because I wanted to kiss him. I let him kiss me because I wanted him to kiss me. Yes, he is a friend. But I love it when he is close to me and tender to me. I feel safe. I don’t feel so confused anymore.
She forced herself to stay awake, expecting her sister to arrive. At four she gave up and slept and immediately began to dream. The images were draped in white and peaceful, but later she could not remember a thing she had seen. Before she knew it a hand was shaking her shoulder roughly. She opened her eyes to a room flooded with sunlight and her mother’s white face.
“Oh, mama,” she said, squinting and sitting up, “I’m sorry. I meant to help you with the breakfast – ”
“Never mind that,” her mother said in a harsh voice. “Your father has gone to see the sheriff and I need you up now to take care of the boys.”
A sharp feeling cut through Michal’s body. “What? Papa has gone to the sheriff? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Her mother shook her head. “Nick’s parents drove to our house a half hour ago and asked if he was here. They are worried sick.”
Michal’s head was whirling from lack of sleep and her mother’s news. “Where is he? What did Tabitha say?”
Her mother’s eyes were large and dark. She pointed at Tabitha’s empty bed, neatly made up just as it had been the day before. “Your sister did not come home. Neither of them came home. None of their friends know where they are. No one knows a thing.” Then her mother put her hand over her mouth and her face broke up as she began to cry. “It’s as if Tabitha and her boyfriend have vanished from the face of the earth.”

Friday, March 04, 2011

the supremacy of creation

Creation is a sort of neglected topic in Christian circles.

Yes, it's a big deal if we're talking about "creationism" and the young earth theory or wondering about the "big bang theory" and whether the universe had a Creator.

But other than that, how many Bible studies have you been part of on creation? How many messages have you heard preached? How many classes have you sat in on that taught it?

Yet it underlies everything.

Consider the whole idea of salvation or redemption. What is it except the re-creation and restoration of a human soul?

Consider healing and prayers for healing. What is healing except the re-creation of the physical body, its restoration to a state of health? What are prayers for healing except asking God for that re-creation and restoration?

Consider exorcism or deliverance. What is that except calling upon Christ to re-create a state of spiritual cleanliness in a human being?

Everything about God and God's Kingdom is about making things new. Everything in the Bible is about creation and re-creation. Everything in your life, if you take a few minutes to think about it, moves along the same lines.

It matters that you create. It also matters what you create.

Holy or unholy.

It is always interesting to me that although our modern age (or postmodern age) says evil does not exist - that there is no Lucifer, that there are no demons - it remains fascinated with the idea of all of it. The horror genre in literature and film continues to expand and the concept of evil beyond human evil is always a big part of the offering. I was surprised to discover that the 2005 movie Constantine - about a maverick exorcist doing battle, in Wesley Snipes Blade-like fashion, not only with demons but Satan himself - continues to enjoy quite a following, including persons writing into forums and chatlines and asking how they might become Christian exorcists in the shoot-from-the-hip style of John Constantine (played by Keanu Reeves).

The whole idea of good against evil, holy against unholy, light against darkness, has never quite left the modern consciousness. Hollywood panders to it. Some Christians believe in it, some don't (though why the Bible would teach the necessity of redemption from evil, sin, and hell if there is no Satan or demonic does not seem to strike them as being at odds with their unbelief).

Satanists and devil worshipers and practitioners of black magic and witchcraft know the battle exists. Which is often troubling to me. Why do the children of darkness believe in the truth about holiness and unholiness when many of the children of light do not?

Those who follow "the fallen one" wish to create evil and chaos and hell on earth - though create is perhaps too positive a word to use for the mayhem they wish to construct. Perhaps it's better to say they destroy what has been created - they de-create - in order to produce a living hell absent of light, goodness, love, and God.

It is up to the creators to create. And they need to do so, insofar as they possibly can, in the image and spirit of the Creator.

Yet, as I said at the outset, creation and creating is a neglected teaching unless it connects with creationism and the creation of the physical earth and its lifeforms.

But we need, all of us, to be creators, not only of families and friendships and ministries of truth and compassion, but of light, holiness, and goodness - in everything in which we are involved.

We need to say: "Listen, it is not only the pastors who are pastors, it is not only the missionaries who are missionaries, the ones who create stories of light and holiness are pastors too, the ones who give us stories of God and purity and hope in darkness are missionaries too."

We neglect the Christians who write, sometimes, because we forget how important creation is, how it underlies every Biblical truth.

We neglect the Christians who make films, sometimes, because we forget how important creation is.

We neglect Christians who write poems, or dance dances, or make music, or paint paintings, sometimes, because we forget how important creation is.

We make much of our pastors and missionaries and worship teams and denominational leaders and Christian professors. We do not make as much, sometimes, of our artists. We ought to celebrate and support the former without ignoring the latter.

All of us create (and hopefully do very little to de-create). But some of us are given to create much more. And those creators need our prayers and encouragement especially if they have been given the task of creating to an extent the rest of us are not called to.

For creation undergirds everything that is holy, everything that matters. And the God who creates and re-creates through redemption, healing, and deliverance is creating and re-creating still through his chosen people.

We are all his chosen people, all we who believe in Christ as Savior and Master. God creates and re-creates in all of us and through all of us.

Yet some he calls to be creators extraordinary - just as he calls some to be teachers, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, while he calls others to do other things, wonderful things, in his name.

The creators extraordinary are as important to us as anyone else within the Body of Christ. And not only important but crucial. Especially in these days of so much ungodliness and destruction of the holy and so much de-creation. We need our creators extraordinary as much or more than we ever have.

We needed them at the building of the Tabernacle. The creators extraordinary, who included artists and artisans, created a place for God to dwell among his people. The first time a human was filled with the Holy Spirit was at the creation of the Tabernacle and it was one of the artists.

At the building of the Temple the same inspiration of God in the lives of his creators extraordinary was also crucial.

Now, when the Temple is the believer in Christ and the people of Christ, those creators remain indispensable.

Those who nurture, create, and re-create in the lives of believers, in the light of the one holy God, are the creators we all need in this day and age and all of us are those creators.

But some, as I have said, are asked to do more.

Pray that they do so. Bless them that they do so. Praise God that they do so.

It may be you. It may be another.

But we need our creators who create and re-create and restore and replenish in the name of Jesus Christ. Quite possibly we have never needed them as much as we need them now.

Please God, let these brothers and sisters be free to serve you and serve your people and to bless the human race you died to restore, re-make, re-create, and redeem.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.


the white birds of morning (dedication)

the dedication at the front of the novel The White Birds of Morning:

This story is dedicated to my son Micah James Austen and to my daughter Micaela Melinda Cheyenne with my love and with my prayers that neither of you will ever have to face the dark sun of human warfare and its atrocities

The God not made by human hands or passions be with you

Thursday, March 03, 2011

the white birds of morning (back cover)

the back cover of the new novel:

Hidden among his Trappist friends at a secluded monastery, Andrew Chornavka has already faced one aggressive investigation into his past by the Vatican. He is certain all that his behind him, and he can return to his life of prayer and meditation, but he finds out he is wrong. A second papal delegation descends upon him and shatters his fragile quiet, once again led by the archbishop and former soldier who is determined to see Andrew’s sister Zoya declared a saint. This time the questions are about Ukraine, Russia, and Germany and the brutal world of the Eastern Front in the Second World War. This time it is about those in Andrew’s family who made war and those who strove for peace and those who shed blood or brought healing in the name of both. And this time, instead of hostility and resistance, Andrew gives the archbishop more than he expected – an unflinching honesty that opens doors the old monastic thought he had closed forever and that he flings wide in order to free his own heart and soul from a haunted past.


A lovely feeling for light and weather and water. Memorable.
Books in Canada

Pura deserves credit for capturing the local flavour of the speech of Maritime fishing folk. He has approached his task with care and has quite successfully echoed the voices he has heard in the outports and fishing villages of Maritime Canada.
The Globe & Mail

A book worth reading. It’s the work of a thoughtful writer who has obviously struggled with some of the hard questions himself.
The Daily News Sunday Magazine

Convincing. Compelling. Tragic power. An engrossing and moving piece of work.
The Atlantic Book Review

Murray Andrew Pura’s fiction has been short-listed for a number of honours, including the Dartmouth Book Award and the John Spencer Hill Literary Award. The White Birds of Morning is the second in a trilogy of novels. Pura lives and writes in southwestern Alberta.

the white birds of morning (excerpt)

December 21

The sun had been hung like a brass circle over the fields of grass and snow. A long line of vehicles crawled over the road that Brother Martin had plowed with the garden tractor, a straight road, and flat, like the roads of all prairies and plains and steppes, and one that took people right to the gate of the monastery.
The cars and trucks were dark. Tanks and troop carriers had come the same way through snow and wheat 60 or 70 years before when I lived a different existence in a different century.
But these were not soldiers with guns and bombs and malevolent intent. These were musicians with cellos and violas and trumpets and timpani. These were women and men who wished to recreate and renew and replenish. Yet I could not ignore that they came in that long dark line, pulling the sky down with them. They were bringing more than music. They brought the long night. And of all the hours in the year and in a life, those which were most impenetrable.
The new abbot was very much in favour of my sister Zoya being declared a saint. He had flung open the doors of our chapel, with its perfect acoustics, for works that had been commissioned in her honour. The musicians were here to make official recordings of those works. They knew her brother was at the Trappist monastery. Whether they would recognize him as the one with his hood up and leaning on a snow shovel was another matter. In the hard red granite of the sun’s fall, as they drove towards our gates, drove implacably as fate or divine will, I prayed I would be missed and forgotten in the turbulence of rehearsals, miles of black cord, microphone stands and violins being tuned to perfection.
The Vatican had phoned. There were still some unanswered questions. Some gaps. Would I – Andrii, Brother Nahum – be available for the Holy Father’s personal emissary? Could the abbot place him at Archbishop Frederick’s disposal? They scarcely needed to ask. The new abbot would do whatever was necessary - and more. How opportune, how blessed, that the retinue from Rome would arrive during the celebration of the Holy Nativity, exactly when the recordings of the sacred music written for Zoya were to be done. The abbot saw God’s hand in all of it.
Dom Alexander, the abbot who had died, would have shielded me as much as he could from the prying and probing. The new one simply threw me to the wolves. He did not understand, nor would he support, my reluctance. I had taken a vow of obedience. It was up to me to get on with it.
The cars rolled past where I stood. I saw the faces of the musicians and the sound people and the producers, the long-haired women and sometimes long-haired men, the large black cases that held basses and harps and drums. I expect they thought I looked strange and medieval in my monastic garb, my hood peaked like a steeple. No stranger than God or life itself, I said to them without moving my lips.
The archbishop would come in the same way down the same road. His cars would also be dark. They had been the first time. Perhaps he would be in a foul mood because the devil’s advocate had picked apart his case for my sister’s canonization. Or perhaps he would have made peace with his disappointment and be as calm as a windless prairie. He might even be glad to see me, though that was doubtful. We had not left on the best of terms the summer before.
I walked away from exhaust fumes that rose like river mist in the ice of the evening air. Three, four, five stars had appeared overhead. The shovel was in my right hand and I pushed back my cowl with the left. I welcomed the sting of the night.
Come then, your grace, I whispered to the sky, to the last flash of light, to the white road streaked with the dark stripes of tires, I find I am surprisingly eager to see you, to talk of that other life I knew as a young man, that terrible life. Perhaps it will be a confession that releases me. Perhaps it will be a revelation and I will see what I have never seen before. Perhaps it will be a resurrection and I will live again. Perhaps it will permit me to lay my old bones on my bed one final time and die a good death. I have no idea. But I am not reluctant or obstinate or afraid. Come quickly, your grace. I will not be hard to find. I stand at the great gate of Kyiv.

The Sixth Hour
1933 - 1939

Christmas Eve

Sokur, Cello Suite Number 1, Opus 97 (Zoya)
Tur, Sonata for cello and piano in D Minor, Opus 14
Litvin, Vocalise, song for voice and cello, Opus 32
(Angel of the Neva)

It was like a bad moment from a bad film, an old joke that has been played so many times people no longer laugh, but grow irritable. It was Hollywood B. And I the clown who was doing the comic routine no one wanted to pay good money to watch.
It was only this – I did not see him, I did not see anything, my head was in another place and in another time. The other clown, he hurtled down the corridor, a heap of evergreens and burgundy ribbons, headed for the chapel. I ran over him, coming in from the barn, intent on getting to the washroom and cleaning the dirt and straw off my hands. We went down. Brother Martin, fresh from plowing snow, his skin still bright from the cold. We said nothing, of course, but he shrugged, got up, clutched wreaths and boughs again, smiled quickly and flew on. I got to the sink and scrubbed. The soap smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg. Now came the sounds of a cello going through the scales. There were cello rehearsals and recordings going on all day and into the evening. I went to my room to change into a fresh habit.
“Brother Nahum.”
A tall black shadow was outside the door. I was getting into a clean white robe and black scapular, just pulling the scapular down over my head. I looked through the dark tunnel of the hood at the long shape. Then it slipped into my cell. White winter light fell on its face and hands.
Spikes of frost.
The face cut and cut again.
Hands folded. Blue veins.
Baldness. A rock pared by centuries of water in a cold river.
“A man ages, Brother Nahum.”
“I apologize for staring. Your grace.”
“Hair turns from grey to white. Skin cracks and peels. Faces take on lines and become maps.”
“In six months.”
“Much less.”
“I’m sorry, I was changing, I’ve been working in the barn.”
“I would like to stretch my legs. We just made it in from the airport.”
“Where is your assistant?”
“Vasari? He is with the others, getting our rooms organized. I told him I wanted to meet with you alone.”
“Let me get my boots back on.”
It was noon and the sun shone silver through white clouds. Small snow came down on our heads. I pulled on my Merton toque, as the brothers called it, and offered one to the archbishop. He took it and put it on. We trudged through drifts up a hill.
“Father Abbot has released you to me,” he said.
“I know.”
“How long has Dom Alexander been gone?”
“What happened?”
“A brain aneurism. He was 49.”
“How are you with the new abbot?”
“He is restless.”
A cardinal went across our path like a blood streak. I had brought the archbishop to the cemetery and Dom Alexander. I had not thought about it. My brain and eyes and feet had taken me there. Someone had placed a rosary of holly and red berries about his cross. We settled ourselves on a bench near at hand, brushing away the snow with our hands.
“The last time we talked,” the archbishop reminded me, “you were going to speak about your arrival in Ukraine. Before I cut you off. The years were 1932 and 33. I read about the genocide. Worse than the Holocaust. What is the name you give it in Ukrainian? Some say seven million.”
“The Holodomor. Not seven million. Closer to ten. Village after village. Town after town. For hundreds of miles in every direction. It did not matter where we walked or where we drove. Women. Men. Children. Rotting. Whole regions without life, life of any kind, except grass growing through eye sockets. Whole families, whole generations murdered. East Ukraine was an open crypt.”
“In something like two years.”
I felt a pricking on my cheeks and the backs of my hands. Part of me wanted to hold back, but another part with more strength and determination wanted the words to break into the light of day with swiftness and fury.
“They blundered. They should never have let us travel into the villages. No one understood the extent of the starvation. The Kyiv officials who let us go into the countryside were shot. The soldiers in our truck were shot. Days later we were dropped off Moscow had people out looking for us. But we had moved on, going from village to village, town to town, looking for someone, anyone that was still alive. By the time they found us we had seen thousands of bodies. My sister Yuzunia’s boy Nykola had seen them. The little girl who survived the famine had seen them. Torn up by wolves. Pecked and gouged and ripped by ravens. When the thaw came there was a reek like sewers. The flies began to come. And their eggs. We returned to Kyiv. Lovely Kyiv. All summer the west wind brought the stench to our nostrils.”
“Why was nothing done?”
“By the rest of the world? When does the rest of the world ever care about anything that doesn’t affect their money or oil or pride? Some journalists tried to write about it. Muggeridge with The Guardian. He reported what the British Socialists did not want to hear. The blood is on their heads. And Shaw’s. He was given a tour by the Soviet government, a guided tour. For such a smart man, a man of letters, a playwright, he was incredibly stupid and na├»ve. He thought, or he convinced himself to think, that they showed him everything. Russia is wonderful, he tells the British press, there is no famine in Ukraine. H.G. Wells was no better. The great British writers. The great lovers of Russia. They can rot in hell with Duranty and The New York Times.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Duranty wrote dispatches from Russia saying the famine didn’t exist. The Times won a Pulitzer for printing Duranty’s reports. He admitted later he knew the famine was going on, he knew Stalin had targeted Ukrainians for extermination. He felt as many as ten million had been starved to death or killed outright. But The Times did not retract his stories and they did not return their Pulitzer. He wrote in 1932, they will tell you, he didn’t know anything about the famine. He knew about the famine all right. It had already started in 32. I will not read their paper. I would not pay a dime, not a penny for their yellow journalism. They are the American Pravda.”
“Russia has voted Stalin one of their greatest leaders. He is a very popular man.”
“He is Russian feces. Nothing more. And those Slavs and leftists that worship him are the same.”
I could not sit anymore. I stood up and began to pace among the graves. I went over my own tracks again and again until my boots found the earth and made the snow black.
“The Olympics were in Los Angeles in the summer of 32,” I said. “That was more interesting. And Hitler came to power in 33. The West wanted Russia on their side just in case. The Socialists in America and Britain did not want the Soviet Union to receive bad press. They challenged the reports. They never came to see for themselves.”
The archbishop was watching me. He spoke slowly and carefully. “We hardly hear of it. There are no movies. Few books.”
“We have no film directors. Hardly any writers. The Russian Communists say it never happened. The Canadian, the American, the British Communists all deny it occurred. Just as the Chinese Communists say Tiananmen Square never happened, or the Jew haters say The Holocaust never happened.” I stopped and looked away from him toward the white and grey sky of the east. “Stalin sent gangs, thugs. They ripped open the walls to find the seed my people needed to plant a crop to save themselves from death. They tore up wells to find the seed, smashed furniture, shot men and women they suspected of lying to them. They even shot the people that came to Kyiv and other cities looking for food. Oh, the restaurants had plenty of meat and bread and cabbage. But none for Ukrainians who believed in private ownership of the land. None for Ukrainians who would not join the collectives. None for those who cried for freedom while Britain and Canada and America slapped their hands over their ears. Crops, cattle, seed, everything was taken for the Soviets.”
I shouted, “Stalin!” Then I dropped my voice. “I hope he is boiling in the blood of the murdered. I hope he is screaming. I pray the hands of the dead come out of the blood like claws and tear his eyes out over and over again. No. Better. He should starve and starve and never die, never find food. Just feel the pain in his guts, just feel himself rotting away inside, dying for something to eat, even garbage, even pig droppings, but never finding anything, just starving and crying and pleading, and the pain wrenching out his stomach and liver and kidneys.”
“Brother Nahum.”
“What? I’m not loving my enemies? I must permit their evil, look the other way, never condemn their wickedness? Love is a not a valentine. It is a white hot fire. It does confront, it does resist. Not only for the sake of the victims. But for the sake of the ones doing the evil. We stop them from doing the works that send them to hell. What could be more loving than that?”
The words erupted into the air. I saw the shriveled and starved dead. I saw smoke, flames, burning trucks and tanks, burning men, collars with the hammer and sickle on them, caps with the red star, rings with the swastika engraved in silver, helmets with the skull and crossbones. My words, finally free, swooped over the carnage.
The archbishop did not look away from me. Even with my back to him I knew his eyes were fixed. “It could not have been pleasant for you or your family.”
“It was the axe that cut right through the root of our Communist tree.”
“I am surprised you did not return to Canada.”
“Ian wanted to. My sister, his wife, Yuzunia, she would not have it. They fought like beasts. She became more entrenched in her beliefs in order to fight back. God forgive her, she was just like the Ukrainian Communists we have in Canada. Anything for the Party. Deny the famine. Deny your own blood. The Party was more important than Yuzunia’s own people she came to save.”
The archbishop sat under an apple tree. One apple high up turned on its stem in a cool breeze. Its skin was brown and shrunken. I came back to sit beside him, my head lowered, my mind and stomach empty. I did not feel the cold of the winter.
The archbishop waited a moment as I sat staring at the snow and dirt on my boots. Then he spoke, looking straight ahead. “Do you still think your sister Zoya, who remained in Canada when you traveled to Ukraine – will you tell me prayed in hate, that she made this genocide happen? To spite you? To punish you for leaving her?”
I looked up in surprise. “You and I must have been arguing, your grace.”
“Oh, yes. We were arguing.”
Black letters moved about inside my head and formed words. “She could not do that, your grace. That was not Zoya. She did not have that kind of power. She did not have that kind of hate.”
“I see.” He was quiet for a long time. Then he looked at me. “I only have three days. There is some pressure. I want you to get right to Zoya’s arrival in Ukraine.”
“You will not understand what happened if I do not tell you about Kyiv first. And Vinnytsia. About what happened to myself and Yuzunia.”
“I am not interested in your other sister. I am not much interested in you.”
“Uncle Vasyl. Yuzinia’s husband Ian. Their son Nykola. The little girl. You will not understand Zoya, your grace. The devil’s advocate will pick you apart again.”
“He did not walk away unscathed.”
“You will not understand. And you will have to come back a third time.”
“I promise you I will not be back a third time, Brother Nahum.”
“You must let me tell you everything. I cannot help you if I cannot tell you everything I know.”
“Help me? Are you trying to help me?”
“To get at the truth. Yes.”
“But my truth is not your truth. I want Zoya canonized. You do not.”
“Make whatever interpretation out of it you want. There is only one truth.”
He looked out over the dozens of graves. There was a feeding station nearby and he watched the sparrows and nuthatches a moment. Several white birds I did not recognize, white as the snow around and above us, were at the station as well.
“I used to think there was such amity among the birds at winter feeders, Brother Nahum. Then twice in one season I found the bodies of sparrows killed by other birds’ beaks.”
I hunched my shoulders. The cold was finding its way into me now that my anger had subsided and my words had left.
He stood up. “You are chilled. Walking will warm your blood.”
I kept up with his long strides. Suddenly, without wanting to or even willing it, I smiled.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I keep thinking you are going to break out into Good King Wenceslas. My father used to sing it to me when we walked in the snow and cold together.”
He stopped and looked down at the monastery. The chapel towered over the other buildings with its steeple and bell. We could hear the strings of a cello working their way over the snow and fields to us.
“It looks like a French chateau. Normandy,” he said.
“I have not been.”
“What do you think of the music?”
“It disturbs the daily routine.”
“Old monk. The daily routine. The music is for Lent and Easter, did you know that?”
“The recordings will be released at Easter. Odd, isn’t it, playing the music of Easter at Christmas?”
“It makes a point.”
“Does it? It disturbs your spiritual routine, but it makes a point?”
“I did not think I would be fond of the cello.”
“The cello is the brown and black sound of the earth.”
He began walking downhill towards the chapel. The snow was larger suddenly and coming down quickly.
“Your bones will harden in the wind and you will not be able to talk. If I recall correctly, your chapel has a small balcony. Let us sit there and talk quietly. Perhaps the cello will inspire you.”
We came down, black against white. Men and women were moving back and forth between the trailers they slept in and the buildings and there was a dark path of feet. The archbishop blew on his hands.
“Even I am feeling it. I never submitted my report on you to the Vatican, the one in which I castigated you.”
I did not answer. Our boots creaked as we walked.
“I must get Russia right. Every detail must be absolutely right. I know how you feel about all this. I read your reports. But you must go over it all again as if we were looking at history through an electron microscope.”
“What reports?”
“That you wrote for the other abbot. The one who died. Dom Alexander.”
I stopped. He turned his fissured face to me. Snow melted like rain against his skin.
“Dom Alexander would never have given those to you.”
“And he did not. Though I asked for them twice. It was your new Father Abbot. I requested them in October when I heard of Father Alexander’s death. Third time lucky.”
There was great heat in me, in my arms and face and throat. The archbishop nodded and smiled like a fine crack in a stone.
“The monk who is always ready to fight. The killing in Russia was not enough. I know I am going to have to bend and twist you to get everything out. And I will. What happens to your soul is of no concern to me, do you understand? There are millions of lives at stake. I will pull everything out and leave you a husk. I can do that. But I will not return to Rome again devoid of the facts. Every fact, monk. And the interpretation of those facts will be mine to render to the Holy Father.”
“I could write him my own report.”
“Which he would never receive. Do you think he opens his own mail?”
“I look at you and I think, this is a man of God, this is a Prince of the Church, this is a man entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
“Yes. Well. I look at you and say, this is a Trappist monk, this is a man close to God, closer, perhaps, than anyone else, except a saint?”
The snow made a tapping sound as it hit his cassock and my robe.
“We have come to fight, haven’t we, Andrii? As Gabriel and Lucifer fight. As Michael and the Prince of Persia fight. Look at your scapular. It is as white as your robe now. Perhaps that means something.”
He resumed walking down the hill. I waited and then I started. I made sure I did not place my feet in his boot prints as I had done when I walked with my father.
“A girl,” he called back to me through the snowfall and silver sky. “There was that girl you mentioned. The one you discovered in the village.”
“Yes,” I grunted, head down.
“She lived? Zoya knew her? They talked?”

We decided she must have been nine or ten when we found her that spring. So a year later we celebrated her birthday, which we placed at the 11th of May, and named her Zhanna Yeva. She could not remember what her parents had called her. The Soviet officials typed the names on a form and stated that she was 11 years old, a citizen of the USSR. There was a cake. And a dance. We insisted on Ukrainian dancers. The Soviets in Kyiv grumbled. Moscow did not like to encourage anything that smacked of Ukrainian heritage or nationalism.
You must understand that it was forbidden to speak in Ukrainian or have books or newspapers in the Ukrainian language. At home we would use Ukrainian, and I always kept some novels and stories and poems in a closet. Most of the time, however, we were forced to read and speak Russian. But we westerners who had come to help the Revolution were something of celebrities and they relented in the case of Zhanna’s party. The dancers leaped and whirled and the young girls tied bright blue and yellow ribbons in Zhanna’s hair. It had grown back thick and dark and the colours shimmered against it.
“The sky and the sun, uncle,” she said to me, spinning so the ribbons swirled.
“Just like you,” I said.
Kyiv was good for her. She put on weight, grew tall, her dark brown hair became as glossy as a racehorse’s mane. The Russians called her chornee krasataa, black beauty. Kyiv was good for all of us. But that summer of 33 the smell from the villages and farms had put my sister Yuzy and her husband Ian at each other’s throats from daybreak to dusk. Both doctors, they would return from their shifts at a hospital in Kyiv and start in on one another.
“Stalin’s stink,” he would growl into his vodka. “Shut the windows, Nykola.”
“It is not Stalin!” Yuzunia would shout. “It is not Stalin! The Ukrainian Communists did it! They did it without his orders! That is why they have been shot!”
“They were shot because they let us see it. And Stalin certainly gave the orders for that.”
“It was only a few villages. You know that. Only a few.”
“That is why we have to close the windows in the heat of summer so we sweat like pigs? That is why the rot is in our noses day after day, week after week?”
“Stalin has been good to us. How can you forget what he has done, what The Party has done? Look at the apartment. Look at the food. The jobs and money. He has done nothing to harm us.”
“Not yet. When it suits him he will decorate the steppes with our skulls and shinbones, just like he’s done with your people.”
“Stop talking! Stop talking like that in front of the children! Everything you say is nonsense. You drink too much. You have lost your mind.”
“My mind is all I have left. It is the one thing the Communists will never have again.”
“Why did you come here with us? Lenin forgive me, I married a fool.”
In 34 the smell was gone, the July air only held hay and wheat and barley. The crops were good. We never forgot, of course, but each year the whole thing sank a bit further out of sight. We had no idea at the time that the deaths were in the millions. Officials convinced Yuzunia that it was only a village here or there that had suffered. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died. No more. Of course, she wanted to believe that. So did I and Uncle Vasyl. Ian never believed any of the Party line.
For many months, at the beginning, Nykola had a hard time, right through the winter, and this made Ian argue even more furiously that we should leave. There were terrible nights. Vasyl and I had the apartment next to theirs. We heard Nykola’s shrieks and Yuzunia’s voice trying to calm him down. Week after week. Wetting his bed. Unable to eat. Missing school.
“What will we do, Andrii?” Yuzy asked me one morning. She had not slept for two nights and her eyes were swollen, the skin under them black. She kept pulling her hair back and knotting it, then yanking out the knot and starting again.
“I don’t know.”
“Zoya would pray.”
“I do not pray. I cannot pray. To thin air. To my imagination. Or suppose God is real? A monster who gives us a world of poverty, injustice and death.”
“Zhanna helps Nykola, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, yes. She strokes his hair like a sister. She reads him the poetry she has written. Oh, Andrii, I thought we had spared him the worst. He did not see all the bodies. Only a few. We couldn’t help it. How could we know?”
Nykola had seen more than a few bodies. Along one roadway we had been surprised by a fence of logs. We thought it meant the field belonged to a farmer who was unusually prosperous. But when we came up to the fence we discovered the logs were the emaciated bodies of women and children and men. Stacked five or six deep. Their mouths were full of worms.
“Perhaps a trip back to Canada might help,” I suggested. “If they would let us.”
Yuzy’s eyes flamed. “If they would let us? Of course they would let us. This is a free country. This is the cradle of a new civilization. But we are not gypsies. I brought my family to Russia to make a difference. We are not going to run back to the Capitalists just because we had a bad week.”
So nothing was done. Yuzunia hoped that, over time, the nightmares would disappear and the memories fade like ink. Nykola joined the Young Communists with Zhanna Yeva, they marched and learned the songs and were taught how to handle a rifle. I lectured at a college, Yuzy and Ian practiced medicine, Uncle Vasyl swept the streets and kept the lawns of Party officials green and the grounds of Soviet government buildings pristine.
“I came to the Soviet Union to make the world beautiful,” he grunted to me one evening when we were alone together, carving away at a large kolbassa and drinking warm beer. Our eyes met and he smiled slowly and shrugged.
I suppose it was Zhanna Yeva who brought about the greatest changes in Nykola, more than time, more than sweet air, more than the red Communist scarf at his throat. They held hands, were always going on walks along Kreshchatyk Street or spending hours at places on the west bank of the Dneiper, throwing stones in the river, reading each other their own stories, yes, Nykola was writing some small things then, Zhanna read her poems to him. When we were there Kreshchatyk was named after a Communist diplomat who had been murdered in Switzerland, so it was Vaclav Vorovsky Street. All the old buildings were almost perfect, they were being repaired from the damage caused by the civil war and the fighting after the Revolution – the Germans had occupied Kyiv, the Ukrainians, the Poles, then finally the Bolsheviks, back and forth, in and out. They ripped up the tramlines in 35, 36 and put in trolleybuses. A mess but the street retained its charm, certainly for the pair of them, they were what, 14 and 16, Zhanna Yeva the youngest, but to us she seemed the older of the two.

“Brother Nahum. I do not want every dot and tittle of your family’s life. I know Zoya did not come to Ukraine until 1939. Could we please move ahead to that date?”
We were sitting in the balcony of the chapel looking down upon a female cellist with hair that glowed like a blast furnace. They asked us not to talk when actual recording was going on, but that had not yet occurred. The room was warmer than usual and our clothing was drying rapidly from the snow. I listened to the cello line and nodded.
“You want me to hurry. Time is short. But the story is not short. If you want to understand 1939 you will have to hear me out on 1936 and 37 and 38.”
He made a sound that was something between an exasperated sigh and a moan of pain. “Surely Zoya wrote you letters.”
“The first letters we received from her arrived in 36. They are part of my story, I assure you. But don’t you have them in your briefcase? Isn’t Vasari holding on to them for some dramatic entrance when you give him the signal?”
The archbishop looked down at his palm. He slipped a smile onto his face and then removed it. “I tried to find them. I expect they were lost in the war.”
“Yes. Lost in the war. Like the rest of us.”
The cellist dug her bow against the strings. The rhythm was staggered, the melody as dark as a cave, the sound strong as rock. The archbishop listened and then lifted one of his hands.
“Please proceed. I don’t care what years you talk about so long as you bring Zoya into your tales by Christmas morning.”
“Do you intend to sit up with me all night, your grace?”
“If that is what it takes. Though I have not stayed up for an entire Christmas Eve since I was eight and wanted a train set. I did not get the train set. I am worried that I might stay up all night listening to you and not get Zoya either.”
I waited as the cellist worked her way up and into a crescendo. When her notes began to fall to earth again I said, “Perhaps this Christmas you will not be disappointed.”

There was a runner. Always going down Kreshchatyk Street, Vaclav Vorovsky Street, training for the Olympic marathon. I first noticed him in 35, dodging around the workmen heaving the tram tracks up with huge iron bars. He was certain Moscow would send him to Berlin. Of course, Moscow did not send anyone to Berlin in 36. But he had convinced himself that Stalin would send a team – runners, hurdlers, swimmers, rowers. So he ran. His name was Sasha. He was good, I thought, fast, steady, never missing a step, never losing that quality of rhythm that is so important to a distance runner.
A number of times he stopped by our apartment block and asked for water from Uncle Vasyl during the summer of 35. Vasyl would be hosing the grass or flowerbeds. Sasha always seemed to get his timing right with Uncle Vasyl. How did he do that? Vasyl had many lawns and flowerbeds to take care of. But Sasha knew when to come down our street, knew when Vasyl would be there, as if Vasyl were some kind of clock an athlete could set his pace by. Of course they talked a bit, then Sasha would continue running again.
The Berlin Olympics opened on August 1st the next summer. Up until the last day Sasha was optimistic that Party officials would ask him to join a group of Olympians representing the best the USSR had to offer. Once he knew the games had opened he realized Moscow had no intention of honouring the fascist Olympics with their presence. I recall standing with Vasyl when Sasha came running up that afternoon.
“Well, they are not sending me,” he told us as he slurped water from the hose.
“They are not sending anybody, comrade,” Vasyl responded.
“We could have kicked their Nazi cans. Why can’t Stalin see that? Is he blind?”
“Be careful what you say,” Vasyl hissed. “Everyone listens to everything.”
“We would have crushed them.”
“In 1940,” Vasyl tried to calm him, “you will be just as fast, probably faster.”
“In 1940? Do we know where the games will be held in 1940?”
“They have already voted on it. In Tokyo, in Japan. Moscow will certainly send a team there and no doubt you will be on it. Keep training.”
“But we had a war with Japan once, didn’t we? So Stalin will use that as an excuse not to send us there either.”
“That was many years ago,” I said, “and there was no Soviet Union then, it was the time of the czars, 1904, 5. Stalin will want the Soviet Union to show the world its strength by 1940, show everyone the superiority of Soviet athletes. Keep running. You will do well in 1940.”
He smiled, he had two gold teeth, then he put the hose back in Vasyl’s hands and began to run again. All that summer he kept it up, right through the duration of the games in Berlin and on into September. It seemed to me he ran even harder now, and faster, and I would see him running in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night. I did not even know how he was employed. When it snowed, he ran, and when the cold took us by the throat, he ran. Then in November two things happened.
First, Sasha came up to Vasyl while he was shoveling snow on our street and asked for a glass of hot tea. So Vasyl brought him up to our apartment and heated water in the samovar. I was not at home, Vasyl told me what happened. Sasha put a great deal of sugar in his tea and sipped it slowly. Then he asked Vasyl if he knew about Stalin’s purges. Vasyl shrugged and said nothing.
Of course, we knew that Stalin had been executing Party officials all over the USSR, but especially in Ukraine, for several years. Vasyl had cleaned up the blood from back street shootings on more than one occasion, Nykola and Zhanna Yeva had seen bodies floating in the Dnieper, everyone talked about it in whispers, many feared they would be shot on a whim from Moscow. To tell you the truth, we thought the fears were exaggerated, and we did not believe they would do anything to harm us because we were revolutionaries from Canada.
“Do not pretend,” Sasha said between drinks from his glass. “You think you are safe because you are from North America. But you have misjudged Stalin’s paranoia. American Communists have been shot and sent to the camps in the north. You know the Gulag? Hundreds of Americans have been sent there. Most of them are already dead. Did you think Father Joseph would forget his Canadians, forget they also could be subversives sent from Capitalist countries to undermine his leadership?”
Vasyl told me he could not keep the shock or fear from his face. He expected that after having told him all this, Sasha would now go to the window and give a signal to someone on the street below and the NKVD, the state police, would break down our door. Sasha saw Vasyl’s eyes and the tightening of the skin over his cheekbones and shook his head.
“No, my friend, I am not here on an errand of murder for the NKVD, God curse them. I have come to warn you and to give you this package.” He handed Vasyl a thick brown envelope. “Everything is correct. Trust me. Get your family on the train and get them out of Kyiv. I have arranged for you to assist in the revitalization of Ukraine. Thousands of people, millions, are being sent to set up collectives on the land owned by those the famine destroyed. The two doctors, Ian and Yuzunia, will be, of course, invaluable. So will the one who teaches at the college, Andrii. The children will be asked to organize Communist Youth brigades. It is all in there. It is official, there is no forgery. We in the government know who you are and where you are going. Get out tomorrow. Take what you can and do not linger here. Any day a directive could come from Moscow and tell us to purge the Canadians in Kyiv. You are going to Vinnytsia. Do your best. Remain loyal to Stalin. Promote Communism. But try not to be so zealous you wind up in glowing reports sent to the Kremlin. Father Joseph will remember you then, and if he remembers you too often, one day you will be dead.”
Vasyl told me Sasha put down the empty glass of tea. There was sugar in the bottom. Then he went to the door and looked back at Vasyl. “Thank you for telling me to run. Perhaps one day I will run for a free country.” Then he quoted Pushkin: “One day Russia will wake up from its sleep and on the ruins of tyranny our names will be inscribed.” Vasyl watched from the apartment window as Sasha raced through the falling snow and into the dark. No one came to the door although Vasyl waited for the pounding of fists and rifle stocks.

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