In October 2010, my bishop and one of his counselors pulled me out of Sunday school and told me they'd felt inspired to ask me to prepare a fifth Sunday lesson about the life of Christ.
Teaching and speaking come easily to me, and so I usually only feel intimidated by a church assignment if it involves paperwork. But I was a little intimidated by that assignment, because I knew the bishopric felt I had something specific to contribute and I felt an obligation to figure out what that something specific was.
As I prepared the lesson, I realized I couldn't possibly cover the life of Christ meaningfully in an hour. So after corresponding with the bishopric, I decided to focus instead on how to study the gospels more fully using our imaginative power as we read.
The handout I prepared for that lesson included four steps to richer reading:
Try to imagine the story from the participants’ perspective.
Example: Matt. 12: 46-50 [what did this look like to his family?]
Rediscover the surprise.
Example: Luke 4: 16-21 [who does that?]
Don’t read too fast—learn to feel the questions before you rush after the answer.
Example: Mark 10: 26, 26-30 [who then shall be saved?]
It’s OK to wonder.
Example: Luke 2: 50-51 [did Luke interview Mary?]
My handout also included a sort of sample "topical guide" that grouped passages by emotional dynamic rather than by doctrine. Like this:
Times when Jesus frightened people:
Luke 2: 41-45, 48-49 [lost in the temple]; Mark 10: 23-26 [Jesus shocks the apostles]; Matt. 8: 32-34 [locals ask Jesus to leave]; Matt. 14: 23-26 [mistaken for a ghost]; Mark 5: 30-33 [issue of blood], Mark 11: 15-18 [cleansing the temple]
Things Jesus said or did which people didn’t get at the time:
Luke 2: 50-51 [Father’s business?], John 12: 14-16 [disciples saw prophecy later], Mark 9: 30-32 [When Jesus talks predicts his death, the disciples are afraid to ask questions] Luke 24: 12 [Peter sees the empty burial linens and wonders]
Times when people got a glimpse into Jesus’ loneliness:
Maybes: Luke 9: 57-58 [foxes], John 6: 67 [will ye also go away?]
More clear: Matt. 26: 37-40 [three fall asleep], Mark 15: 34 and Ps. 22 [what Jesus starts to quote from the cross]
Times when Jesus made people around him look deeply into themselves:
Mark 10: 26-30 [Peter wonders if he’s good enough], John 8: 2-9 [casting the first stone], Luke 24: 30-32 [road to Emmaus]
The handout suggested you could make countless lists like these, including times when the crowds around Jesus were overwhelming, times when Jesus made people happy, times when people surprised Jesus, times when Jesus walked out of verbal or physical traps, times when Jesus got unusually upset or stern, times Jesus talked with women.
At the end of the lesson, I suggested that, in addition to generating more usable insights, one benefit of building a more detailed human picture of the gospels would be that you'd have an easier time telling compelling stories about Jesus to your children. I shared how my daughter loved the story of Jesus and John kicking in their mothers' bellies, and told about how deeply she seemed to connect even at age five to Jesus' desire not to be alone on the Mount of Olives.
That fifth Sunday lesson, as I recall, went quite well. I had, I thought, fulfilled my assignment honorably.
Only--even after the lesson, the assignment kept lingering with me.
Usually, when I get an idea for a story or a novel, I tell my wife right away. More often than not, telling her is enough to relieve my initial fascination with the idea and I no longer feel the obligation to actually write the story down, which saves me a lot of work.
But when I decided I wanted to extend my imaginative engagement with the gospels into a novel-length retelling, I didn't dare risk losing steam by letting anyone know. So I wrote the opening sequences slowly, carefully, and in secret, and only showed them to her once I knew I was hooked on the project.
I spent most of last summer creating the first draft of the novel. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I almost cried again when I started the revision process and realized how much more work I had left to do.
Through the fall and winter, I decided to let the manuscript sit. This summer, I promised myself to finish the revision. I plan to release the book in August.
I'm 64% of the way through the text now. Last week, I decided to pick up the pace so I can meet my end of August goal, and I haven't blogged since.
But I feel sort of like I owe all of you readers something, so I've decided to post a short excerpt once or twice a week until the revision is done. I'll post the opening sequence simultaneously with this post, and be back next week with another scene that can stand fairly well on its own.
Hope you enjoy them.