20 February 2022

Stories that Rewrite Us

Dylan Alcott's Australian of the Year acceptance speech was brilliant and moving and I was so delighted to see him be honoured that way amongst a cohort of equally deserving candidates. In subsequent interviews I heard Dylan speak about his self hatred growing up, the power of family and a journey to the man he is today. Dylan helps me catch a better glimpse into the world of those living with a disability. Dylan's story also reminds me of one of the most profoundly moving stories in the bible. Its the story of a man with a name thats hard to pronounce - Mephibosheth. You can read his story here in 2 Samuel 9

So this week I attempted an ancient practice called Midrash. This is the Jewish practice of reading between the lines of the Torah. Between the lines of what is said to imagine what is unsaid. In this process you place yourself into the story, become the character and allow your imagination to lead as you just write. As Alecia Ostriker writes,  "Midrash is a kind of diving deep and surfacing. You move from your ordinary analytical, rational mind into a more meditative state, then into the flow of creativity, and finally back to your ordinary consciousness."

The pastor in me gets nervous at this point. What biases am I adding? How am I corrupting the passage with this paraphrase? Crikey I need to loosen up. I think you can keep to the text and still have an imagination. So here is my inhabitation of Mephibosheth. Turn off your analytical brain for a moment. Get comfortable and let the story preach to you as you read slowly and imaginatively. 

Be blessed.

The Lame one. 
That’s how I’m known. 
That’s all I've ever known. 
My feet twisted, gnarled, 
crusted like sun baked bricks. 
I was just a child, only 5 years old. 
Broken they were, my feet, shattered in that fall. Dropped by my nurse in the mad scramble on that day, when my life changed, when the wonder and joy of my childhood just vanished like a morning dew.

That day. 
I still remember.
The anxious voices.
The servants, agitated, panicked.
People rushing, packing, crashing, scattering like hunted lambs.

I recall the snap, the crackle of bones, the cobble stones beetroot red with my blood. 
That was the moment I met fear, day one of every stinking day since. 

That was the day my father Jonathan went away. Never to see him again.
As a boy I used to draw pictures of his face in the earth till one day I realised all I had was a featureless outline, no detail, nothing really at all to hold onto. I guess, all I ever had was an outline of a father. Not someone to feel safe with, someone to trust.
And his father Saul, a mad king they say, died that day too.

"The king is dead," people cried, and I had no idea that meant I was dead too. A dead dog, waiting to die, hunted, a threat they say to the new king. "No heirs to the old throne allowed!"  King David, hunted by Saul is now the hunter – and that’s why I’m the lame one. 
I escaped but not without this permanent reminder of my fall from grace. How surprising, that’s what my name Mephibosheth means after all. 

Mephibosheth. ‘From out of the mouth of shame’…. 

Names are prophetic. No parent would call their child this name, but that’s who I became. Shame. I wonder what my first name was? I guess it doesn’t matter because now I’m cursed, lame, unclean, orphaned, fatherless, alone in this house of refuge far from the palace of my childhood. Exiled in Gilead, in a backwater of barrenness, a wasteland called Lo-de-bar. 

Loo - deee - barrr.

No one goes to lo-de-bar. Or as we call it, N
o de bar. 
It's only good for one thing, disappearing, being a nobody, laying low and that’s been my life. Laying low, literally dragging my useless feet along the ground and laying low, just in case that king David comes looking for me. Not that I can imagine why I’d be any threat to him. 
A dead dog waiting to die. 
Useless. A life worth nothing to no one….


Years pass in obscurity. 


Then one day, horses, uniformed men came over the horizon, unannounced “we are looking for the son of Jonathan, the lame man.” My cover was blown, by an old servant of Saul’s, Ziba that snitch! I bet he got well paid for his information. It’s not like I could run away, lame dogs don’t run, they just cower with their tail between their legs and awaiting their fate.

So out of no-debar they carried me, the long dusty journey back to Jerusalem, to a sight I could hardly comprehend, a city, a palace, that seemed as radiant as the very sun over my head. The larger the buildings grew the smaller I felt and by the time I was in the courtyard of the king’s palace I’ve never felt so small, so humiliated.

My thoughts raced. What a way to meet your executioner, why not just kill me back in lo debar and save the baggage? Why bring me all the way back here? If I meet the king, what do I do, what do I say, "sorry for being alive king", "sorry for being born to that king who hated you." 

 Suddenly this kingly figure came to me, his hand rested softly on my shoulder, "Mephibosheth" he said. I turned and fell prostrate before him, stuttering a few terrified words “at at your service l..lord”. I’ve lived in fear and humiliation but I’ve never felt so terrified and so unworthy in that moment, sure that my time was done, time to be put down.

Then I heard three small words that would change my life…. Don’t be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid!” I don’t know how not to be anything but afraid, I'm afraid!

“For I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

Was this some sick joke, some new form of torture, "show me kindness", yeah right. “For the sake of your father”….what has my father, that man I never knew, got to do with it anyway? How can he help me from the grave, isn’t he and that madman Saul the reason why my life is such a mess? 

“What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” Stinking, worthless, pest – everyone knows, the only good dog in Israel is a dead one.

“A seat at the king's table”, “all the land of my grandfather.”
I did not believe it, refused to believe it.
I was so blind to the backstory.
This story of two beloved friends.
This King David, who once was my father’s greatest friend!

And the promise. The pledge David made to my father Jonathan in that field so long ago. That no matter what, David would always show kindness to my father’s family. And this was no passing comment, this pledge of kindness is as powerful as a whirlwind. It’s not nice words and glad tidings, it's a promise as solid as the great stones of the temple, as sweet as honey dripping from the comb. It’s so faithful, so unwavering, so determined even if it means untold acts of compassion or mercy or grace no matter the cost.

David made that promise to my Father to show that kind of kindness to anyone in his family….. and I was finding out, that included me. Me? A dead dog somehow included in this mercy, all because of a promise made on my behalf to a man I never knew. I’ve heard words like grace and mercy before, but they were just as alien to me as the furnishings of the palace. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing real was the nagging ache in my gut. I’d vomited in fear so many times that day there was nothing left in the pit of my stomach but disbelief….

And then I heard the clamour of a crowd echo down the halls, and arms under my shoulders carrying me toward the throng, toward a hall and a table, oh a table fit for a king. My ashen face scanned the room in anxious haste. Braided hair, flowing gowns of rich colour, jewelled adornments and a sweet fragrance of jasmine. And look, there are David’s mighty men, looking so fierce so athletic, so….whole. I was feeling pathetic in their presence.

‘Here comes the dog’, I thought, ‘here to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.’ How humiliating. I looked down, ashamed to look at them, hoping they would politely look anywhere but in my direction.

They carried me to that table, in all my shabbiness, to a place just across from the king even. Those either side made room for me to recline, they saw me, welcomed me. Servants offered me a cup of the finest wine I’ve tasted – deep crimson and rich. Another brought fresh hot bread like I’ve never tasted, as though it had come down from heaven itself. Had I ever known the delight of food before? To be truly nourished. I’ve never seen such a banquet, such abundance, let alone be invited to one. How did I get here? Don’t they know who I am?

As the minutes became hours, a tiny thought, like a gnat began to crawl in the spaces between my fear and loathing. It began to linger. It began to grow.

Wait, they see me, not my brokenness.

The king looks delighted to see me. I was reclining at the table like everyone else. No pitiful stares, or sideways glances.  Not invisible, not hiding in Lo debar I was…. 
included, wanted. 

Not once or twice but always included, a permanent seat. 
My world was unravelling. All the years, the tears, the darkness lifting off as a widow’s veil when her kinsman redeemer finally comes for her.

In time, that table, that seat, that bread and wine silently taught me 
no shame is so great that mercy cannot heal, 
no ugliness that cannot be made beautiful, 
no fear than cannot be comforted, and
no story that cannot be rewritten. 
Oh what joy may greet you
when a king calls your name.

It is still hard to believe it, 
I’m no dead dog anymore, 
that name doesn’t fit anymore.
I’m still lame in the feet, 
but it’s not who I am. 
No longer the Lame one, 
I think, somehow, could it be
I became,
the Loved one.

And the love 
that carried me to the table, 
carries me over and over, 
carries me all the days of my life 
and whispers….

you always 
belong here.

Special thanks to the amazing Lisa Shanahan, my ever wise editor and Yoda in the craft of putting pen to paper.