Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Upon This Rock"

Lately, I've been as busy as a one-armed paper-hanger. And while I realize that analogy has lost its relevance with the now obscurity of wallpaper, it still holds true. The new school year has started splendidly, but my hours at school are longer and more consuming than ever. That, coupled with marrying my amazing wife Hillary, breaking into parenting, and signing my first publishing contract, I've not had much time for short-story writing.

Which was why, when I was first inspired to write this story, I knew it was worthy of my time.

There are few things in my life that could impact me the way my relationship with God has, and thank goodness for that! Regular followers of this blog, my Running Blog, and my Tumblr pages will know that I went through a very painful divorce not long ago. My life could have gone to some very dark places during that time, and it was only by the grace of God alone that it didn't.

I'm rambling. If you're hear to read the new short story, here it is.

"Upon This Rock"

The stone door closes in my face, but I don’t try to hold it open or slip inside. Instead I plant my feet, too terrified to follow the battalion of Roman soldiers as they drag my friend inside. No doubt he’s going go before the High Priest and be given a farce of a trial, where he’ll be convicted of, among other things, blasphemy, heresy, and inciting pubic disorder.

The courts aren’t even supposed to be open this late at night. They’ve only come together because this was when they were finally able to catch him; the one time the crowd wasn’t on his side, hanging on his every word and testifying to his wisdom and goodness.

If only he had a friend who’d stand before the court and testify in his defense. Someone who’d speak up when everyone else ran for their lives.

Instead, he has me. And I simply let the door close as my best friend, the one who fulfilled all the predictions in the old scrolls, is led like a sheep before wolves.

“Sir,” says a voice to my right. My stomach lurches in terror, and I try to avert my eyes and act like I don’t hear the servant girl. But she’s on duty at this time of night, and the servants in the temple are nothing if not thorough. She darts in front of my face, and before I can hide in the hood of my robe, she’s made eye contact with me.

“I recognize you,” she goes on, even though I’m stepping away from her and trying to hide behind my robe’s billowy sleeves. I haven’t had time to wash it, and I’m acutely aware of just how bad it smells, since I slept on the ground for a few hours earlier that night. “Yes. You were one his disciples, weren’t you.”

The way she uses the past-tense, were, fills me with dread and guilt. But it’s not enough to stop the icy stone of fear that’s settled into the deepest part of my stomach. The cold nearly steals my words as I croak, “No, I’m not.”

She stands upright, clearly confused by my lie. I hate myself as I scurry away from her, desperate to be lost in the crowd that has gathered in the temple courtyard at word that the man who proclaimed himself the King of the Jews has been captured.

The wind and the rain lash at our boat like whips, desperate to tear apart the wood and canvas and leave us adrift and dying on the open sea. I am an experienced fisherman, having learned the trade from my father, but even the combined expertise of myself, James, and John – also lifelong fishermen – doesn’t appear to be enough to save us. The others are gathered just below deck in the small boat, depending on us three to wrest the boat to shore.

I can barely keep my eyes open from the spray, and every time I open my mouth to give an order to my fellow fishermen my lungs fill with water and cold, damp air. For a brief moment I think I’ll drown while simply standing on deck, but when I clear my eyes of water I see the last thing I’d ever expect.

It’s our friend. Walking on the sea, as if it is as firm and stable as bedrock.

I wondered why he’d insisted we go ahead without him. He said he’d catch up later, and we all assumed he’d charter a boat to meet us on the other side.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Everything he said was absolute Truth, like the very cosmos and laws of nature bent to his whim, as if they longed to follow him and make his word into Law. I shouldn’t be surprised to see even the wind and the waves obey his commands.

But I am. And somewhere, deep inside me, I know that we are saved.

“Teacher!” I scream, but my voice is swallowed by the angry sounds of the ocean. Even the men standing next to me can’t have heard.

“Look, over there!” I can’t tell if it is James or John, but it doesn’t matter. The cry is a high-pitched wail of terror, not the words of a rational man. “It’s a ghost of another who’s died on this sea! Trying to take us down to the deep!”

“Take courage! It’s me!”

When he speaks, it isn’t as a man speaks. It isn’t a sound, which would have been devoured by the crashing waves and roaring wind. Instead his voice speaks straight into my ear, as if he is by my side.

I want to have courage, like my friend says. But I am so crippled by fear that my hands are faltering on the mooring line and my knees are nearly knocking together. “If it’s really you,” I yell, my voice an octave higher, “then tell me to come out to you!”

I don’t know what I’m thinking. Maybe I am so delirious with fear that I hope it’s really a ghost, ready to pull me to the dark, cold depths to have a release from my terror.

Instead I hear him, his voice calm and steady, say, “Come.”

Then, suddenly, nothing else matters. I feel the line slip from my scarred fingers, knowing that James and John are going to be able to control it, that we’re all going to make it to shore safely. As I gaze upon him, standing on the water a few yards from the boat, the spray of the sea no longer stings my throat or fills my lungs. My robes are no longer tossed by the wind, but hang still and dry.

I am no different than the wind and rain, cowed by his greatness. No different than the jugs of water, converted to wine. He has called, and I am bound to obey his word, just like everything else ever created.

He gets inexplicably closer, though he hasn’t taken a step since calling me. Instead he simply stands there, a slight smile on his face, his hands wide like a father expecting his infant to take its first steps towards him.

I blink, slowly, and start to take in the world again. The wind tosses my cloak. My cheeks dampen, and for a moment I wonder where the water has come from. But then my eyes drift to my feet, and I notice that it wasn’t the teacher who had come closer to me. It was I who had gone closer to him.

Because, like him, I’m standing on the turbulent water as if it is solid ground.

The fear returns anew, and my limbs feel electric with it. I suck in a breath, ready to plunge to my death in the cold belly of the sea. And, just as I expect
, I drop like a stone toward the water.

Before I can even think the words, my mouth flies open and I scream, “Lord, save me!”

But then steely fingers wrap around my wrists, and I’m caught just as my legs dip into the water up to my knees. There I dangle, in a grip as firm and solid as the earth itself, and I look up and see my teacher. His clothes and hair are as dry, and disappointment lingers on his face. “You have such little faith,” he said, his voice still and firm. “Why did you have doubts?”

For a moment I choke on my reply, still in his grasp, and finally I sputter, “I don’t know.”

The night has grown cold. In the middle of the temple courtyard, some of the soldiers have built a fire, and there are many crowded around it. My tolerance for the cold is even weaker than my resolve, though, and I slowly make my way toward the fire.

I am the only human being to have ever walked on water. Everything I thought I had known about the world, about life, about truth, was thrown asunder, and I walked on water. Because my friend had called me.

And I just told the servant girl that I didn’t know him.

I sidle between two vagabonds, probably a few of the many beggars that crowd the temple in the daytime, panhandling for coin from the many visitors. If I’m lucky I can blend in with them. The less the soldiers notice me, the better.

The fire is warm, but I quickly come to resent my standing place. The two I’ve hidden between smell like they haven’t had a bath in weeks, and though I was certainly no rose, I try to cover my face with my cloak as I pressed closer to the warmth.

In the corner of my eye I spy the servant girl again, and I find myself unconsciously trying to shrink closer to the fire between the two transients. They still smell terrible, but the night is cold and I can’t rationalize moving away from the fire.

My peripheral vision shows the servant girl growing closer, and in my mind I curse her and wish she’d go somewhere else. This is, of course, against everything my friend taught us in the months I’d spent with him. Were he here, he’d remind me that I am no more righteous than her, that she’s simply doing her job and that God’s grace was as available to her as it is to me.

But he’s not here. No thanks to me.

“This fellow,” comes her voice as she steps closer. I’m certain she’s no more than thirteen or fourteen, just a child. “He’s one of them. I’d swear it. He’s one of the followers of the man they arrested.”

People are starting to stare. The two men on either side of me step away, leaving me dangerously exposed, my face no doubt completely visible in the light of the fire.

I want to run for my life. But nothing would make me seem guiltier. So I control my shaking knees and my stomach that’s threatening to empty itself from nerves and reply, “Woman, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then I cover my face again with my foul robe and stalk away from the fire, doing my best to control my pace and not incriminate myself.

 “Who do all the people say I am?” Our friend asks.

It had been a long day. We’ve been on the road for more than a week now, visiting surrounding towns. When we follow him, it seems our friend always knows where to go before we even begin walking, like he possesses a sixth sense that shows him who needs his help the most and where to find him.

Of course, he doesn’t call it a sixth sense. He calls it The Spirit. None of us quite know what he means by that.

Andrew is the first to answer. He’s turning four fish on a cooking spit, soon to be our lunch. “Some people say you’re John the Baptist, that he’s raised himself from the dead and is now performing miracles.”

Our friend seems to remember John the Baptist and his sacrifice for a moment, and his features become sad.

Andrew went on. “Others say you’re Elijah, that God’s brought him back like he said he would in the old scrolls.” 

Our friend’s face hasn’t lost its sadness. “God did just that, but the world didn’t recognize him.”

Andrew is taste-testing the fish, chewing a small bite and considering the flavor. While he is busy, Bartholomew continues for him. “Others are saying that you’re Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets of the old days, come back to life.”

Now our friend addresses all of us, his eyes passing from one to another. “But what about you, my closest friends?” He asks, spreading his palms. “Who do you say that I am?”

For a moment, no one says anything. Some of them look to him; some, to the ground; and others, to each other, as if waiting to see what everyone else will say before stepping forward and saying what we all know to be true.

What’s the matter with them? I know they all believe it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have left their families, their jobs, and their lives behind to follow him.

I stand, while everyone else sits. “You’re the messiah. The son of the living God. You’re the one the prophets spoke of, since ancient times. You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”

Slowly, the others begin to nod in agreement, mumbling similar affirmations. But our friend, the messiah, the Christ, looks to me and smiles.

That memory stings like sand in my eyes. I’m alone at the edge of the courtyard, now, far from the warmth of the fire for fear of being recognized. Though dozens of people stand only a few yards from me, I feel as though I am standing, alone, on the farthest corner of the world. 

Not so long ago, I was the only one of our group willing to profess that our friend, the one who had taken us under his wing, shown us God’s love and how to truly live in righteousness, was the messiah, the one foretold in the old prophesies to save his people.

And I had just as quickly let him be taken away in chains, and denied that I had ever known him.

I am facing the far corner of the courtyard, my eyes turned outward toward Jerusalem. The city is normally silent, this time of night. Now, an uneasy clamor seems to grip the city, no doubt caused by the quickly-spreading news of my teacher’s capture. Only days ago, this city welcomed him with open arms, spreading a path of palm branches as he rode, triumphantly, through the gates. They blessed him and spoke of him as though they understood what the twelve of us did: that this man was everything we had hoped for, and more.

Now they simply milled around the temple, wondering what the latest tidbits of gossip were about the man hauled before the courts at this horrendous hour. There were no cries of outrage, no mobs of protestors demanding he be set free, no demonstrations on his behalf. In less than a week, he had gone from ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Tell us more of his crimes, what he’s done to be taken to such a special trial’.

And I was exactly like them, when all was said and done.

Footsteps are approaching behind me, and I pray that it’s a beggar coming to ask if I have any coins to spare. Of course, I have nothing, but if I did I’d give it all away just to be left alone this night.

A hand is placed on my shoulder, and a male voice says, “Excuse me, sir.” I turn, ready to explain that I have no money, only to find one of the High Priest’s servants behind me. His face looks familiar, but I can’t quite place it. He stares at me for a moment and says nothing, but then a look of realization crosses his face and my stomach turns cold. Slowly he nods, his pointed finger punctuating is words. “Didn’t I see you with that accused man, in the olive grove?”

I stammer for a moment, words caught in my throat.

His voice takes an angry edge. “I was there. I saw you. Were you the one that attacked my relative?”

In the olive grove, just before my friend had been arrested, I had attacked one of the Roman soldiers with a sword, a relic my father had given me. I wasn’t even sure why I had brought it that night; I had no idea how to use it, and my teacher had proven himself a non-violent man. Still, I had cut off a soldier’s ear with the sword, in my friend’s defense.

Only to have my friend replace it on the man’s head, and heal it as good as new.

But even though the man was healed, it didn’t erase my crime. I was now a wanted man; if I was ever caught and convicted, I faced death.

Or worse: a cross.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” I cried, and dashed away from the man and through the temple, as fast as my legs would carry me. I didn’t care that fleeing made me appear guilty; if I remained around the man who could identify me, I was as good as dead.

I push past confused people in the temple courtyard, through the halls and past the gates, until the twisting streets of Jerusalem appear. I slide into a dark alley and finally paused to catch my breath, my eyes turned upward and the first fingers of periwinkle dawn spear the sky.

Somewhere over my shoulder, I rooster crows, signaling the first hour of work, and my blood turns cold.

“I have prayed for you, Simon Peter, that your faith won’t fail. But, even when it does and you turn your back on me, remember to return and strengthen your brothers. They’re going to need you.”

I stare, dumbfounded, at my friend. How can he say such a thing? Haven’t I proven myself to him, time and time again? What have I done that makes him think I’m not faithful?

“Lord, I’m ready to follow you, no matter what. I’ll even go to prison or die right beside you, if I have to!”

I’m on my feet, now, my fist clapped over my heart, swearing an oath in the only way I know how. I expect him to be happy with me, to be proud to call one such as I disciple and friend. Instead his face is sad. I actually think he may start crying at any moment. “Peter,” he begins, his voice nearly a whisper. “Before the night’s up, even before the rooster crows for morning, you’re going to pretend not to know me three times.”

Everything he had ever said had come true. He had spoken to people in the markets at the synagogues, telling them things about their lives that he could not have possibly know. I had seen him raise a dead soldier’s daughter from the dead, simply by speaking the words.

Yet, for some reason, when he had told me I would deny ever knowing him, I had thought him to be wrong. I had thought that, somehow, he was wrong about this particular subject when he had been correct in every other word he had spoken.

So I had forgotten his words, filed away in the back of my mind, and resolved myself to trying harder to be a better follower of him and of God.

Sorrow crashed down upon me like a load of bricks, and in the middle of the alley I fell to my knees and cried like a child. I weep until my stomach feels like it will empty its contents there into the dust. Surly people who pass me by think me out of my mind, a grown man wailing like an injured animal in the street. But I don’t care what others may thing. I don’t care if the soldiers find me, recognize me, and throw me in jail. Nothing else in the world matters.

Because I have become exactly what I said I would not: a coward. A traitor. A faithless, pathetic weakling, to be despised by all.

My friend’s trial can’t be going well. The way things are going, it won’t be long before he’s convicted, and the process of torture and crucifixion begin. I know it will happen, because he said it would happen, and nothing he’s spoken has failed to happen.

“Your name, Simon, when translated, is both Cephas and Peter. All three of these mean ‘Rock,’, and upon this rock I shall build my church. Even the gates of hell won’t overpower it.”

My friend’s words catch me off guard, and, for once, I am stunned to silence.

He continues. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom in heaven. And whatever you speak of to belong to heaven, shall belong to heaven. Likewise, whatever you speak of not to belong to heaven, will not belong to heaven.”

A bitter, ironic laugh suddenly interrupts my tears as I remember what my friend said, not long after I was the first to confess him as the savior.

Once again I find myself doubting him. 

He is the man who has fulfilled every word of the prophets in the ancient texts, the one who was supposed to come and rejoin the people of the world with their God. Every word he has spoken has been absolute truth. Except, when I consider what he said about my role in the kingdom of heaven, I weep even more bitterly. Because about this, he cannot possibly be correct. There is simply no possible way.