John Mark sat by the winter flames
In Ephesus with little James
And Mary on the floor in front
Of him, and watched the children hunt
For words to ask why tears ran down
His smiling face. He held a brown
And beaten parchment in his hand
And fingered tenderly the band
That Timothy had broken just
An hour before. "O sweet, sweet trust!"
He thought. "Is there a taste among
Mere men more pleasant than the tongue
Of one dear friend who says to some
Self-doubting soul, 'I trust you. Come,
And be my toil- and battle-mate;
And let us venture something great?'"
He closed his eyes and let his mind
Imagine ending well, refined,
But not defeated, by the fear
faithful wife sat near
Him on the hearth and understood
More deeply than an angel could,
Or any man, because it touched
The woman in his life, who clutched
The hope of love, long scorned, more than
It touched the feeling of a man.
At last the little James found words:
"Sometimes my daddy says, the birds
Don't sow or reap, but God takes care
Of them, and they have clothes to wear
And food to eat. So you don't need
To be afraid. When I learn how to read,
He told me yesterday, you might
Be finished with your book. At night,
He said, he'd read me lots of things
That Jesus said. My daddy brings
Me up to bed at night and lays
His hand here on my head and prays,
And blesses me. He said that when
He has your book, he'll bless me then
With lots more words of Jesus. I
Sure hope you're not too sad to try
And finish, Mister Mark." That's what
The children called John Mark, and not
With first names. Timothy had taught
Them: fearlessness was not the same
As disrespect, and that a name
And title take more pluck and poise
In youth than treating men like boys.
"What makes you think, young man, that I'm
Afraid?" John Mark replied. "One time
My daddy was afraid to tell
The silversmiths that if they sell
The images of Artemis
And don't trust Jesus Christ, they'd miss
Eternal life. And later I
Could hear him through the floorboard cry.
And when I saw your tears tonight
I thought that maybe it was fright,
And you remembered being scared,
And then felt sorry." John Mark stared
At James and Mary on the floor
And marveled, "Young man, you know more
At five than most men know who live
To be ten times your age. So give
Thanks, son, your father cares enough
To show his heart, and doesn't bluff
His way around the truth. You've been
Well taught. But even now, and in
A family like this, there might
Be something you can learn tonight."
Then Mary spoke, "Our daddy said
That we don't have to go to bed
As long as you tell stories and
We stay awake. And I can stand
Up if I have to so I don't
Get sleepy." Then James added, "Won't
You tell us, Mister Mark, why you
Were sorrowful, but smiling through
Your tears? And why the parchment there
Is special?" John Mark was aware
Of Rhoda's eyes. They seemed to say,
"John, tell these little ones the way
God made a marriage and a man."
So John Mark leaned down and began,
"Well, children, let me tell you first
A big mistake, one of the worst
I ever made. Some fifteen years
Ago God set me free from fears
That I had felt through all my life
And gave to me a godly wife.
The great apostle Paul told me
In Antioch, he thought that we
Should go together on the sea
To Cyprus — Barnabas and he
And I — because I knew the laws
And customs there, and Jesus was
Unknown. I grew up there, a strict
And kosher Jew, and never kicked
Against the rules. I never shook
An unclean hand. I never took
A meal with Gentiles all my life."
At this point John Mark saw his wife
Wince, as she always did at this
Point in the story, but the kiss
That flew between their faces fell
Like petals from a rose — pastel
And sweet — and sailed like laden ships
With fragrant smiles across her lips.
"And so we set out for the King
Of kings, and preached Christ though a string
Of synagogues, and saw the Word
Awaken hundreds when they heard
That Jesus, the Messiah, came,
Just like the prophet Micah's claim,
In Bethlehem, and that he died,
The way Isaiah prophesied,
For sins, and how on him God laid
All our iniquity, then made
Him rise up from the dead, prolong
His days for ever, put a song
In all those who believe, and count
Them righteous from a endless fount
Of grace. My days on Cyprus passed
In joy and harmony. At last
We sailed from Paphos on
The western coast, and then at dawn,
The next day, Paul and Barnabas
And I and those who went with us
From Cyprus landed on the coast
Of southern Asia, where the boast
Of raw Pamphilian sin was bold,
And Perga's pagan priests extolled
The goddess Leto, mother of the world,
They said. And here is where I made
My great mistake.
watched the trade
Of leadership from Barnabas
To Paul, the younger man, and thus
From that day on Paul preached.
And I was stunned at how he reached
Out to the Gentile pagans there,
And ate with them, and didn't care
If he had washed his hands. He talked
To merchants on the Sabbath, walked
Among the prostitutes, ignored
The dietary laws, explored
The pagan temples and the shrines,
And, with the Gospel, quoted lines
From godless, heathen poetry,
And preached that we are free
From Jewish ways, and even loosed
From circumcision. He reduced
The whole demand for how someone
Is justified with God, and none
Of all these laws the least avails,
But this alone, our faith. 'It fails
To honor Moses, and the law,'
I thought. That was my dreadful flaw,
My big mistake."
James said. "I left the team. And when
I got home to Jerusalem,
I told the elders — all of them —
What I had seen, and they began
To plan a team to go and teach
In Antioch that no one preach
In Jesus' name that Jewish laws
Are cancelled now." A lengthy pause
Revealed that Mary there was sound
Asleep. But little James was wound
Up like spring and said, "Were you
Afraid you might be wrong? It's true
What Paul was saying, isn't it?"
"It is, and ever since I quit,
I knew the bottom of my great
Mistake was not the worth and weight
Of truth, but fear, just like you said —
The many forms of fear and dread:
The fear of mobs in Perga, fear
Of elders and apostles near
My home that I have known for years,
Fear of change, and fear of peers,
And deep, deep down, the fear that Jews
Might have to eat with Greeks and lose
Our vaunted eminence among
The nations, and the glory sung
For centuries that we alone
Of all the peoples could be known
By God's electing grace." "So then,"
James said, "How did you change? And when
Did you feel free from fear?" "Two ways,
My little sage: The first displays
The power of the truth well-voiced,
The second, how the Lord rejoiced
To free me from the reflex of
Disgust, and put a kind of love
Here in its place that I doubt not
Will last forever. First, Paul got
A chance to make his case before
The elders on the Council floor
There in Jerusalem, and I
Heard truth so mighty and so high
It filled the room with light. And then
James, Jesus' brother, spoke, and when
He did, I broke. He quoted from
The prophet Amos, 'There will come
A day,' he said, 'when God will take
From all the foreign tribes, and make
A dwelling for his King, and call
Them by his name, and they will fall
In worship as the Israel
Of God, in Christ, and he will dwell
With them, and they with him, and there
Will be one flock, and they will wear
One righteousness.' My arguments
Collapsed and fell just like the tents
Of Midian, and I told Paul
That I was wrong. He said, 'For all
You've done I do forgive you, Mark,
But you must show that this new ark
Of truth can float.' And so we went
Our separate ways. And Jesus sent
To me a liberty I would
Not thought was possible, and could
Not have in any other way."
James interrupted him to say,
"Is this the other thing God did
For you, the way you said, to rid
You from the reflex of disgust?"
"It is, my little James, and trust
Me here: This was the sweetest pain
And surgery I'll ever gain.
I fell in love with Rhoda, James."
The boy looked up and saw the flames
Of love in Rhoda's burning eyes.
"She was," John said, "a precious prize
I never wanted, little James."
"Why not?" the boy inquired. "It shames
Me just to speak the truth," John said.
"Because she was a Greek, and bred
With Gentile blood, and servant girl
Who cleaned our house, a hidden pearl
Behind polluted hands. And I
Avoided her — until the sky
Of my conceit and arrogance
Came crashing down at once,
And suddenly I loved what I
Once called a swine, and found, to my
Astonishment, that she had long
Loved me in spite of all my wrong.
So James, that was the fatal thrust
Against the reflex of disgust.
And there she sits, my liberty,
The servant girl that set me free."
Now all one heard was crackling fire.
And then James spoke, "May I inquire
Once more tonight: The parchment, sir?
What's that?" "This, James, is like the myrrh
The wise men brought to Jesus, or
Like honey sweet to taste, and more
To be desired than precious gold.
It is a priceless letter rolled
And sent from the apostle Paul.
He tells your dad, 'Give Mark this call:
I want you here in Rome,' he wrote,
'Because I've seen, the ark does float.'"
And now on Christmas eve we light
A candle here, and pray: O might
The holy flame of truth burn bright,
And here consume the works of night,
And may the doctrines that we trace
Advance the purposes of grace;
And all the wisdom from above
Promote the great designs of love.
And so may everyone be meek.
In Christ there is no Jew or Greek.
And may we too be freed from fear,
And every race be welcome here.