It was a workshop at Pendle Hill that led me to discover more of myself and of the Bible through creative writing. It took me by surprise; I never expected that creative writing would be a path to the Bible or that I would choose such a path. For years I had wanted to experience Pendle Hill; then in the spring of 2009 I heard about the workshop being led by Carrie Newcomer and Faith Hawkins called "Balancing Head & Heart through Midrash." The idea of the workshop was to explore creatively the sacred stories of our lives. This intrigued me. Using writing as a tool, I had recently begun exploring my experiences as a pediatrician as a way to think about the meaning of my work. The idea of balancing head and heart through writing and spirituality spoke to me as something I wanted to do with my writing. I had never dreamed of using Bible stories as a starting point, but I was drawn to the workshop because of my love of Carrie’s music and writings.
My wife and I signed up as soon as we were able to confirm that we could get the time off from work. As the workshop approached I grew anxious. Surely, I thought, I would be surrounded by writers. They would all, I thought, be accomplished at writing, while I had barely done any. I enjoyed writing in my college years, but as a doctor I had done almost no writing. I had planned to try to write more in the months before the workshop, but of course I found I was usually too busy, or tired, or distracted. I feared sharing my writing attempts, feared being embarrassed in front of someone whose work I admired so much.
Of course, as so often happens with our worries, they never materialized. The workshop was one of the richest experiences of my life, and credit for this is shared by the staff who make Pendle Hill such a warm spiritual place, the facilitators who created the space for community to form, and the wonderful group of people in the workshop. Our small group was made up of people of many faith traditions—mostly, but not all, Christian. We had, as I had suspected, a number of creatively talented people, including published authors and current, former, and in-training ministers, along with two other physicians. People shared deeply of their lives, and we developed a chemistry made of equal parts tears and laughter. I think the tears shared as we recounted intimate details of our lives made the laughter flow so much more easily, and during this week we laughed more than I had laughed in years.
We did many things in this workshop to explore sacred story. One was to look to the stories of our own lives and see how they were a part of the sacred story. Another, some of the results of which I will share here, is to take Bible stories and reexamine them from different perspectives, to fill in details of the story or missing pieces. This is where the Jewish tradition of Midrash comes into play. A Midrash is a Jewish text that expands upon and explains a story in the Bible. (The term also refers to the process of creating such texts.) The idea is that there are many places where the Bible is unclear, or even says things that appear contradictory. The Jewish scholars saw these gaps as places where we were left to interpret and fill in, and they saw Midrash as a way to keep the Bible stories alive and meaningful. To quote Rabbi Rueven Hammer on Scripture: "The rough spots, the spare and sparse words, the seeming problems, are all viewed as a literally God-given opportunity to fill them in, smooth them over, and extract the multi-leveled meanings the author has implanted within."
I found that I enjoyed this writing— and other people seemed to enjoy my writing as well. I had not planned to work on creative writing. I had not thought that I would particularly enjoy exploring Bible stories. For most of my life, the set cycle of Bible readings used by the Catholic Church was my main familiarity with the Bible. As a convinced Friend, I had done some Bible reading, but admittedly not much in the last few years. I will be honest; I think I lost some of my connection to the Bible stories. I have never related well to all the smiting that happens in the Old Testament, or the legalism of Paul, and lately I have had a hard time relating to the New Testament because it seems so "preachy." So I hardly imagined myself writing about the Bible, but it seems that the Spirit had other plans for me. Being a part of this sacred circle of friends strengthened me for that journey, and taught me much about writing from my heart. I believe that some of what I have written may resonate with others like me: those who yearn for spiritual truth and practice but have begun to wonder whether the Bible is relevant to us in that quest. Maybe reading some of these stories will encourage readers to re-envision some of the sacred stories in ways that are meaningful to themselves.
What follows, then, are some of my Midrashim from that week and later. The first is one written that week, which views Jesus with humor and humanity. It reflects on what I call the fishing stories: Luke 5:1-8 and John 21:1-6. (For each of these it may help if you read the Bible versions first.) This version imagines dialogue between Jesus and his male friends that I think sounds more like the dialogue I hear in groups of men of which I have been a part.
Jesus was tired of all the crowds and tired of having to sound profound all the time. The disciples were getting a lot of pressure from their families to bring in some income again. They had pretty much been neglecting their fishing business since they began following this new radical rabbi around. So on that Saturday morning they planned to go out fishing, and Jesus decided it would be a nice break to join them.
After a long tiring day in the sun, they had hardly a thing to show for all their day’s work. They’d caught almost nothing, probably not enough even for their families, let alone anything worth selling. Everyone was in a pretty pissy mood.
On the way back towards shore, Jesus spoke up. He said, "You know, I think you should try doing it once with the nets on the other side of the boat."
The disciples looked at him as if he were crazy. One spoke up: "Jesus, we’re all tired and exhausted, and I don’t think we’re really up to figuring out another one of your riddles now." Another was less kind: "Great idea, Jesus, why didn’t we think of that one? If that works we can mark an X on the bottom of the boat so we can find the same spot next time we go fishing."
Jesus sneered at him: "Ha ha, we all heard that one when you told it last week, Andy." But he went on: "I’m really serious, though. I just have this feeling about it, and I’m really asking you, please, just humor me and try it once."
So they did—and caught loads of fish, more than they could get into the boat. They all shook their heads and looked at Jesus. Jesus said, "I don’t really understand it either. Sometimes these ideas just pop into my head and I can’t get them to stay away. I’m learning that when that happens I need to listen." The guys still couldn’t get away from the sheer amazement of it. They started counting the fish. They couldn’t stop talking about it.
Finally, Jesus said "Enough with the miracle stuff! It was really just the same trick I did with the fish in the baskets on the mountainside last week; this time I did it underwater. If you really want, I’ll show you how I did it someday when we have time. What’s very important is that you get it right in the book. It’s not about magic tricks. It’s all about learning to listen to what your leadings are. It’s about following leadings, dreams, and crazy ideas, and not worrying about what others may think at first. That’s what you need to be sure you get right because that’s what will make a difference in people’s lives age after age. Follow your dreams! Get it in the book right!"
And with that he stepped off the boat and walked away towards the shore.
This next piece looks at Matthew 6:25-30 from the lilies’ point of view. Maybe this reading can point us towards a different level of respect for the things of the Earth.
Consider the Lilies of the Field
So it is said that we are finer than Solomon.
If God can so bless us, why not you?
We toil not nor spin, we will be cut down and wither,
It is so, the great book says.
What is this life we lead that credits us no toil?
Is there no toil to surviving cold dark winter?
Is there no toil to claw tender shoots up from darkness
Is there no toil to create beauty and give you breath?
Why do we not spin?
Is it good to use others to change how we appear?
Is it good to need more than we are given?
Is it good to always create and not just be?
We will be cut down and wither, will you not also?
We rise year after year, age after age.
Where is your Solomon now?
So consider the lilies of the field.
The last is one of my favorites. It looks at the story of Jesus’ first public miracle (John 2:1-10.) It always struck me as a little strange that Jesus would choose switching drinks as a first miracle. I thought maybe there was something more at work, so I rely on a guest to tell us one possible scenario.
What a party that was! John and Rebekah were a wonderful couple. Everyone who knew them thought the world of them, and thought they were just so right for each other. They had friends everywhere they went. So when the news came that they were finally getting married, and throwing a big feast, it was only natural that so many of us wanted to be there, even those who had to come a long way to get to Cana. There were people there I hadn’t seen in years, and so many I had never met before, so it was a little overwhelming at first, but that sure changed by the end of the day!
I heard later from Rebekah’s sister that the newlyweds were a little overwhelmed by the crowd, too. When people started arriving from everywhere, they started getting worried about the arrangements: would there be enough tents, enough dishes, and of course, what about the food— would there be enough to feed all these people? We saw they looked nervous, but thought it was just the expected wedding-day jitters. Of course, it turned out that the wine made the day famous, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The wedding itself went off perfectly. The young couple looked radiant, the ceremony had all its rich tradition, and the crowd beamed. Then began the party, and boy, did we all party. There was music, good friends, food, and, it seemed, lots of wine. It was a young crowd, and as one who was young back then can attest, we probably drank more wine than we should have, but we were celebrating and happy. No one got out of hand or anything; this was a traditional wedding, after all!
So there we were: some dancing, some standing around in groups talking. I was talking with Joseph about how things were going in Nazareth, as I had not been there since I had to deliver some figs there years earlier. That’s how it happened that I was right there to hear the beginning of it, the great miracle of that day. Mary, Joseph’s wife, came up shaking her head. She reported she had just heard some of the other women talking about how the couple had run out of wine. Mary had been caught up in the drama like some of the others, saying things like, "How could they have let this happen? Surely they had to figure so many people would come! What poor planning!"
That’s when Jesus, their son, spoke up. I’d hardly noticed him before; up until then he’d always seemed like a quiet sort of guy. He was clearly upset. I think he later regretted speaking so harshly to his mother, but after all he was young, and had had some wine, too. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, "Woman, why should I care whether or not there is wine? We are here to celebrate this marriage and all these wonderful friends and family. We’re not here because of the wine!" His mom agreed, but she knew the couple and their parents were going to be embarrassed, mortified that they had made this vast mistake, on the biggest day of their lives and in front of all their family and friends. Mary begged Jesus to try to do something, to help tell the others. That’s when he had the idea. You could just see it in his face. I mean, he always had a sense of humor, and by his smile you could just tell he’d come up with something.
He called over a waiter. "I have an idea," he said. "I want you to fill all those empty stone jars over there with water, then bring some and meet me by the head waiter. We are going to make sure the newlyweds’ day is not ruined by lack of wine." As the waiter went away with a puzzled look to do as Jesus asked, Jesus went to find the head waiter, who was trying to get a chance to talk to the groom to tell him of this catastrophe. Jesus and the head waiter talked a while, then both smiled. Then the first waiter came up with a ladle of the water from the newly filled jars, and gave it to the head waiter to drink. The head waiter smiled broadly and said, "Most people serve the best wine first, you saved it for last!"
Word spread around the room quickly, and people caught on right away: "We can’t let John and Rebekah know, this is their day and our gift to them!" We all stood around drinking the "wine," commenting on what a fine vintage it must be, how the bouquet was exquisite, and so forth. Someone came up with a couple of bottles of real wine the waiters used for the bride and groom and their family when their glasses ran dry. It was so much fun to be a part of this. It was the best wine: the wine of camaraderie. We may not have known each other at the beginning of the feast, but now we were all in cahoots together in this grand plan. If the couple was nearby we’d sip from our glasses some and then wink at each other. And we really pulled it off. John and Rebekah didn’t learn about it until much later, when we could all laugh about it, though I think their parents figured it out during the party.
It could have been such an embarrassing moment for the family, it could have marred John and Rebekah’s wedding memories forever, but instead Jesus managed to change everything with just a little twist, a little challenge to our assumptions. He ended up doing a lot of that in his lifetime. Here he took a bad situation and transformed it. He reminded us of what we already knew, in this case that the celebration was about something bigger than all of us. He made us work together for something beyond ourselves, and we were all richer and happier because we did. He didn’t just talk about it, he found ways to show us that love, community, and a higher purpose can lead to something really beautiful.
Though I am old now, I can never forget that day. The community of friends we formed then still persists. I have friends in Jerusalem, and even Tyre, who I met that day. John and Rebekah have had a full life and have many grandchildren. People still talk of that wonderful wedding day. Why, just last week one of my grandsons came home from the Cana market wearing a shirt he got there. In the new style, someone had painted a slogan across the front. His said "When life gives you water, make wine!"
I believe that long after John and Rebekah, my Sarah and I, and all our friends are forgotten, people will still speak of that day Jesus worked a miracle; that day when he taught us that with love, creativity, and the help of our friends, we can turn water into wine.
A sacred place
For me Pendle Hill, much like the original Pendle Hill in England, is a sacred place. It is a place where I had great awakenings: an awakening to the power of story, to new power in the Bible stories, and to the creative spirit within me. The simple, comfortable, and cozy setting; the talented leaders; and the supportive group of people around me there allowed this to happen. It is a place filled with the Light, and a place where the Light is shared. These stories are my way to share the Light I see. I hope that you who read them will consider creating your own stories to reflect the Light as you see it.