Uncovered gems #1: Eleanor Spence, “Me and Jeshua”

“We’ll have follow-the-leader,” Jacob decided, “and Jeshua can be the leader.”
“No – you do it,” said Jeshua. “I like it better being last.”

(Eleanor Spence, Me and Jeshua, 1984)

Australian author Eleanor Spence has not been completely forgotten. Text Publishing recently reprinted her novel Lillipilly Hill as part of their Australian classics collection, and back in the 90s, she formed a reasonably large part of my primary school English education, with her books The October Child and The Leftovers both being prescribed texts. But her 1984 novel, Me and Jeshua, despite receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim, was last reprinted in 2001 and has all but completely vanished from the cultural memory.

When it came out, it was nominated for Children’s Book of the Year and, surprisingly for a mainstream author, won Christian Book of the Year for 1985. I found it in a collection of free books at the theological college where I study and, having heard of the author but not the book, was intrigued enough to take it home. And it has proven to be one of those forgotten gems that makes rummaging through old tattered books so worthwhile.

The story is written with that just-recognisable form of camouflage that allows familiar stories to become so fresh for the reader. Spence uses literal translations of all place names to make them, at first, hard to identify. Bethlehem, for instance, is called the House of Bread. And the characters of Jacob, Jude, Simon, Miriam, Josef, Elissa, Jona and, most importantly, Jeshua, take a few chapters to become familiar again to us as Jesus and his earthly family. The camouflage is aided by Spence taking the approach of making Jacob (James), Jude and Simon be Jeshua’s (Jesus’) cousins not brothers (a traditional Catholic view that allows Mary to remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus). But, whatever reservations some readers might have with this take on the story, the rest is utterly plausible. Jude, the narrator, grows up hearing stories of his infamous but beloved aunt Miriam who conceived a child under scandalous circumstances but was married by the decent and generous Josef, and one day they return from a mysterious sojourn in Egypt to live with their family in what readers familiar with the Bible story will know to be Nazareth. Jude, learning who he is himself within his family and culture, is drawn more and more to this mysteriously wise, kind and altogether good cousin of his. Meanwhile, Jeshua must learn why he is so different to everyone else and what his true father wants him to be.

What arrested me so much about this novel was the beauty of the storytelling, influenced in no small part by the powers of Spence’s language and her evocation of place. Palestine is both palpably magical, with figs and fresh loaves you could almost pick off the page and eat, as well as torn apart by violence and poverty. Jude is a perfect narrator: aware enough of himself to be compassionate and imperfect at the same time. And Jeshua just shines: simultaneously an ordinary boy with fears and insecurities and yet good in a way that is never questioned or corrupted and – most remarkably of all – remains utterly credible.

I do not know what Spence’s personal conviction was about Jeshua the real, historical man. But in this remarkable, forgotten gem, she has made him human and glorious in a way that has drawn me anew to who He is.

“You are God’s field, God’s building” 

Good news.
He also works in earthy things:
not only stars but soil and grass,

carves churches from stone souls,
makes mud-houses whole, and knows
the ways a seed must break. Good news

that maimed bodies are his building,
that the one-eyed, the lame,
may be fed in his field,
good news that his
is the one needful Whole.

Open your sin-severed eyes.
Epiphany brighter than day is here,
bringing harvest,
ripening barns-full of all His toil.

Lent: Man of Sorrows 3

Obedience is a crown of thorns.
The earth’s the Lord’s;
He does as He pleases,
and it pleases Him to wear these thorns.

Joy set before Him, He endures;
joy not instantaneous, I yield.
Obedience is a crown of thorns,
and I despise this crown.

Go into the wilderness; see
all earth’s kingdoms laid at your feet.
The dilemma lies: your feet will crumble beneath the burden;
the true crown comes with thorns.

God does as He pleases and
it pleases Him to wear this crown.
Joy set before Him, He obeys;
the meek will take the earth.

Lent: Humility 2

Bow at His feet.
You did not come here by yourself:
your knees are weak and buckle under pride,
and joints stiffen when left to self.

The road is narrow.
You must bend and bow to walk its curves;
it will not bend itself for you
and, puffed with knowledge, you will only make it burst.

Consider Him who bore
such shame, who fell such distance,
plumbed such trenches with His perfect grace,
and all the while knew joy.

Not greater than your master,
the mountain-side is no more yours than His.
If He descends, then so must you;
low, be lower still.

Catechism 31

What do we believe by true faith?
Everything taught to us in the gospel. The Apostles’ Creed expresses what we believe in these words…
(New City Catechism)

We believe:
Almighty Father –
      maker of
all living things,
      all things
             sustaining,
      holding all.

We believe:
One Son, one Lord –
       Jesus Christ, virgin-born,
Spirit-conceived,
       the beaten,
             suffering,
       dying King.

We believe:
Christ crucified –
      died and buried,
rose again,
      ascended now to
            heaven’s throne
      to judge and ever reign.

We believe:
One Holy Ghost –
      one holy, whole,
Apostle-church,
      all saints communing,
            sins forgiven,
       everlasting

life to come.

Catechism 30

In Christ Alone large-500x500

What is faith in Jesus Christ?
Faith in Jesus Christ is acknowledging the truth of everything that God has revealed in his Word, trusting in him, and also receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.
(New City Catechism)

 

Price paid – rest.
            The promise lies in deepest past:
Adam’s offspring crushes heads
            of serpents
                        with his heel.
 
Rest, receive:
            the Word tells all a soul must know.
Adam’s stain to stainless death,
            many sons
                        brought glory.
 
Trust the truth:
            though sin clamours at our ears,
better words are spoken in
            the blood which
                        pleads for us.

Catechism 25

Does Christ’s death mean all our sins can be forgiven?
Yes, because Christ’s death on the cross fully paid the penalty for our sin, God graciously imputes Christ’s righteousness to us as if it were our own and will remember our sins no more.
(New City Catechism)

All?
It seems a dream
which never human mind could fathom.
No, I must repay the debt!
the striving self says in the face
of grace too grand, too reckless.

Yet all.
No helpless soul
could fiction up such headlines, nor
could guilt conceive such answer.
All: eternity before and after
sings redemption’s senseless song.

And all
the righteousness
bought on the tree, all glory, reward,
all ledgered out in our false names.
The beggar sits in fortune’s seat;
the Father sprints, arms open.