Friday, May 16, 2014

Stephen - a story

Naomi brought the last of the food to her mother in bed early in the morning. Her mother coughed and sat up. Looking at the small meal – a piece of bread and a few olives – she said:
'And what about you? Have you eaten?'
Naomi smiled.
'Don't worry, mother. Stephen will be here soon.'
Her mother smiled too.
'He's a good young man. What would we do if he did not come with food from the Church?'
'Others would help us, mother. Our neighbours would not see us starve.'
'Would they not? And what help have they given us since your father died and I became too ill to work?'
'Well, none … but they know the Church helps us!'
'And does that mean that they can not call to the house, to see how we are doing, and offer a little help?'
Naomi said nothing. Her mother pushed the wooden platter towards her. 'Eat a little. I can't manage it all.'
Naomi shook her head.
'No. You eat it. You are weak and can't wait. I'll be fine until Stephen arrives. And anyway, I haven't time to eat! I have the house to clean and tidy before he arrives.'
Her mother looked around their small, single-roomed home, with little by way of furniture or other possessions, and then looked at her. 'And has the house gotten so dirty since he was here yesterday.' Naomi looked down and blushed.
'I thought so. You like Stephen, don't you?'
'Oh, mother!'
'It's all right – I understand. He's a good looking boy.'
'Oh, he is, isn't he mother?' Naomi sat down on her mother's bed and grasped her hand. 'He's so tall and handsome; and he is always so smiling and kind.'
Her mother patted her hand and said: 'And his curling hair is as black as raven's wing; and his blue eyes are so dark they are almost black. As I said, he is a good-looking boy. But he is a little old for you, Naomi.'
'No he's not; I'm nearly old enough to get married, mother. And Stephen is not yet twenty. Most men don't get married until they're years older. There's no reason why when I'm old enough …' She trailed off and blushed even deeper. Her mother gripped her hand tightly.
'And has he said anything to you, child? Anything that might make you think that he likes you too?'
Naomi shook her head.
'No, mother. But he always smiles at me. And when he visits, he always stays and talks. I know he has so many people to visit, to bring food too, but he always stays and talks. With me,'
'Does he now? And what does he talk about?'
'Well he told me about how he was chosen as a deacon. He's from Galilee, you know, just like Jesus; so he knew him almost from the beginning and followed him. So when the twelve decided they needed deacons to help with the food distribution, he was the first one they picked. It's easy to see why – he's so full of the faith and the Holy Spirit. They only picked seven; and the apostles prayed over them and laid their hands upon them to ordain them for this work.'
'And has he told you about anything else?'
'Well, yesterday, you were sleeping when he came, and he told me about what happened in the Synagogue earlier in the day. Some men from Alexandria and other places, men with fancy educations, tried to argue with him about Jesus, saying that he was wrong in what he believed. But he was able to prove them wrong in all they said. He was able to point to what Moses and the prophets say in Holy Scriptures about the Messiah and show how Jesus fulfilled all the prophesies, which meant that he really must be the Son of God. They didn't like that, I can tell you! But there was nothing they could do except get cross!'
'He seems to talk a lot about himself.'
'Oh, he's not like that, mother. He's not doing it to make himself look wonderful. He only tells me so I will know the wonderful way God works. He says it is the grace of God that allows him to speak with such power. On his own, he could say nothing to such well-educated men, much less defeat them in an argument. But when he is filled with the Holy Spirit he can do anything.'
Her mother gave her hand a squeeze.
'Well, he's a lovely young man and I'm glad you like him. As to marriage, we'll see. You're young; in a few years time you may not feel the same way. But if you do, and he does ask, you'll hear no objections from me. He good, he's kind, and more important he is a faithful disciple of our master, Jesus. A mother couldn't ask for anything more.'
Naomi threw her arms around her.
'Oh, thank you mother.'
'Get away with you. Save your thanks for when and if he asks. Now let go. I can't breathe. Try to remember I'm a sick woman!'
Naomi let her go and got to work cleaning their little house. She dusted and swept and polished and it seemed like no time at all before there was a knock at the door. Naomi brushed down her clothes with her hands to knock any dust off them, swept her fingers through her long dark hair to tidy it a little, gave her cheeks a little pinch to give them some colour and rushed to the door.
'Hello, Stephen …' she began, smiling, as she flung it open. But it was not Stephen. It was Timon, one of the other deacons, and he was carrying the food basket Stephen normally brought.
'Hello, Naomi,' he said. He looked sad. 'Can I come in?'
'Of course,' she said, stepping aside. She closed the door behind him.
'Hello, Rachel,' he called to her mother as he placed the basket on the table.
'Hello, Timon,' she called back from her bed in the corner of the room. 'No Stephen today?'
A tear fell from Timon's eye onto the table.
'No,' he said in a choked voice.
'Timon,' cried Naomi. 'Whatever is the matter?'
'Stephen is dead,' he said. 'They killed him. They said he was a blasphemer and they stoned him.'
'No,' said her mother. Naomi said nothing. She felt like she couldn't breathe; her chest was tightening and her vision began to blur. And then she screamed, so loudly her mother put her hands over her ears; but to her it sounded like a tiny sound, very far away. Then everything went black and she knew no more.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on her mother's bed. Her mother sat on the bed next to her, a worried look on her face. Timon hovered behind her. He looked worried too.
'What happened?' said Naomi. Her voice sounded very small and weak.
'You fainted,' said her mother.
'Fainted? Why would I …' and then she remembered and began to cry. Her mother held her very tight until the sobs grew less. When she had stopped crying and wiped her face, she turned to Timon.
'What happened?'
'I'm not sure now is the time … ' he began, but Naomi cut across him.
'Please tell us.' He looked at her mother. She nodded her head. Timon sighed.
'Yesterday Stephen was arguing with some scholars …'
'He told me. They couldn't beat what he had to say and they didn't like it.'
'They surely did not. They went to the scribes and the elders and accused him of Blaspheming against God and Moses. So they seized him and took him before the Council. Of course, he had spoken no words of blasphemy – as if Stephen would ever say anything against God! - but they called false witnesses to say that he had. And then they asked him to speak. He quoted scripture to them; he explained our people's history of resisting God and rejecting those he had sent to guide them; and he then told them they had betrayed and murdered the Righteous One sent by God.
'Their hearts must have been made of stone. Stephen’s face looked like that of an angel, but they were enraged and ground their teeth at him. Then he looked up into the heavens and told them he could see the Son of Man, our Saviour, standing at the right hand of God. But instead of listening to him, they covered their ears. They dragged him out of the city and stoned him. Even as the rocks struck him, he prayed that the Lord Jesus would receive his spirit. Just before the end, he cried out in a loud voice to the Lord, asking him not to hold this sin against them. And then he died.'
For a long time, no one in the room said anything. Tears ran down the faces of the two women; some even ran down the face of Timon. Then Naomi said:
'Thank you for telling us, Timon. You are a good man.'
'Not as good as Stephen,' he said. His voice was sad.
'Why do you say that?' said her mother.
'He died for the Lord Jesus. I do not know that I could do that.'
'You say that now; but tell me, Timon – do you truly believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God?'
'Of course I do!'
'And what of his promises of eternal life – do you believe those?'
'How could I not? Did he not rise from the dead after three days as he said he would? Did I not see with my own eyes how he returned to heaven, rising into the sky until the clouds hid him from our sight?'
'And is what you saw a truth that you could deny?'
'Even if it might cost you your life?'
Timon smiled. 'You are a clever woman, Rachel. Perhaps I could die for the faith. But I am still not as good a man as Stephen.'
'Will you be here tomorrow?' asked Naomi.
'I will indeed.'
'Then you are a good man, and a good follower of Christ. And that is good enough.'
'Thank you, both of you.' said Timon. He hugged them, took up his basket, and left. The two women looked at each other.
'Will you be all right?' said Rachel.
'What do you mean?' said Naomi.
'About Stephen; about his death. I know how much you liked him ...'
'No mother; I did not like him – I loved him. But I will be all right. A man can die in so many ways at any time. He could be killed by a cart, fall off a building, be taken by some disease. But Stephen died defending the faith – it was a holy death. I miss him already – my heart aches. But Jesus promised eternal life to those who were faithful to the end. Father died of a fever; but we know because he was a good man who trusted in the Lord he is with him in heaven and we take comfort in that. How much more, so, can we be sure that Stephen is there also, having actually died for the Lord?'
Her mother hugged her.
'You are a good girl,' she said, 'I'm proud of you.'
'Remember that over the next few days and weeks,' said Naomi ' when I'm crying my eyes out for Stephen because I miss him so much and I'm angry that he has been taken from me.'
'I will,' her mother promised, with a smile. 'And now, perhaps, a little food? I know you have not eaten anything all day.'
'In a little while,' said her daughter. 'There is something we must do first.'
'What is that?'
'We must pray.'
'For Stephen? But why child? We are sure he is in heaven.'
'Not for Stephen. For his killers. With his last breath he asked God to forgive them. We must pray for them and hope that they will repent and come to believe in Jesus also.'
Naomi slipped from the bed and knelt beside it on the floor. After a moment, her mother leaned forward and placed her hand upon her daughter's shoulder. And in silence they prayed for the men who had killed Stephen.

(c) Fr Levi/Patrick G Burke 2014

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