Where Do the Words Come From?
“Don’t keep your light under a basket.”
I was enamored of Ruth, who cautioned me thus. To her, I had just revealed my fear.
I asked, “That’s biblical, right, that light and basket thing? But what do you think he sees in me?”
The director of the show had awarded me the lead part in his upcoming production. Yes, I had read for that part. I had gotten it, but I had not expected to get it. Other and better men had read for it, too.
Here’s what Ruth said next. “There is a core truth inside anything that comes our way, anything in our lives that is big and troubling. That’s what I believe. We should keep our attention on that core.”
I smiled. “Then my core truth is that I want that part, but I’m scared.”
“So that’s it.”
“That’s what? The want, or the scared?”
“That you want it. Concentrate on that. That’s the core. That’s how you’ll pay it forward for him. To make it come real, what he saw in you.” She smiled. “And I’m so pleased for you.”
Ruth was making soup – since it was the end of August, it was tomato soup, with corn and shallots built on her rich chicken stock. Now and then, she would turn aside and muddle dried herbs in her mortar with her pestle, toss them in.
“How’s your wrist?” I asked.
“Better than three days ago. I’m not using it much today. Not stressing it. The swelling’s down. Still hurts.”
She had stumbled recently, fallen and sprained her wrist. Her forearm was wrapped in a tight bandage.
She went on, “I saw this show last night, about the disciples of Jesus, called The Chosen.” She smiled at me. “It’s a good show. You’d like it. Very well written. Anyway, one of the scenes shows this long line of people with health trouble waiting to get in front of Jesus so he’ll heal them.” She lifted up her bandaged wrist. “I kinda wanted to be one of them.”
I smiled. “Looking for a laying on of hands?”
“Just looking for a connection with him.”
As Ruth and I had gotten to know one another, sometimes we talked about her Christian belief. I admire that belief in her. She grew up Jewish and “came to Christ,” as she puts it, in college.
She has told me about the turning point for her, from Judaism. The turning point was when she got it – really got it – that the Jewish scripture, what we call the Old Testament, required the New Testament.
The Jews, she said, everyone she had known at her synagogue, they thought the Law and the Prophets is complete in itself. But how could it be complete?
This is what she got. Every verse, she said, even every word, demanded completion … and the completion that was demanded came through Jesus.
I had grown to like Ruth, a lot. I mean…really a lot. Of course, she’s beautiful. Anyone – you, anyone else – you all can see that for yourselves. And she’s funny, and smart. And she can cook. But the main thing is that she takes all this about Jesus seriously. It matters to her. I haven’t known many women like her.
Me? I act. Certainly, I act. What else can I do?
But about God? Whoever God is for me, I suppose I feel closest to God when I am privately perfecting a part – how closely am I being this other person, this other person who is not me? I’ve come to believe I have a gift.
Ruth helps me by considering that my gift is from God. But thinking about her help leads me to the bad of side acting. Shall I spend my life perfecting the art of being someone other than myself? What had Ruth just said about hiding the light under the basket?
I mustn’t reject Ruth’s kind support. Whose light am I hiding? The character’s light? Mine?
The words I use on stage aren’t mine. The playwright wrote the words with the intent of seducing the audience into experiencing the grandeur, or the irony, or the humor – or whatever it is – intended by the script. My skill, you see, is intermediary. It’s useful, but I’m between the truth of the words and the creativity of the author.
And where do those words come from?
One time I asked that question of Ruth.
I like it that Ruth is the sort of woman who has just the right sentence in her mind to read to me, right then, and she can lay her hand on the right book immediately. The book she pulled out that time recounted the stories of a missionary woman who had lived in Africa for 25 years.
Ruth found the page, smiled at me, and read, “A passionate pursuit of God draws me closer into his light.”
She closed the book and smiled at me. “That’s where they come from, the words. It’s about the honest pursuit in the writer and about the light that is truly found by that passionate pursuit.”
Today, Ruth tasted her soup. She gestured toward one of the cabinets. “Get me more salt, would you please?”
I stood and found the salt cellar and handed it to her. “Ha ha,” I said. “Salt and light. Even more biblical.”
“Yeah, but in those days they weren’t always complaining about having too much salt. Know where our word salary comes from? The Roman legions were often paid in salt – salt was their salary. The legionnaires always wanted more salt.”
“What about the light side of it?”
She looked at me; had something to say. “I mentioned that show, The Chosen? A thing that really strikes me in the show is how dark it is at night – when there’s a night scene. Like two or three candles and maybe an olive oil lamp. But that’s it. Otherwise, the scene is dark.”
Ruth measured out a small amount of salt and added it to her soup. She stirred and then tasted and then smiled. “Good.”
“The dark?” I prodded.
“Here’s what really blew me away. You asked once about where the words come from. Listen to this.” Her eyes shone. “This is really exciting.”
Then she told me something that excited me, too.
“In the show, there’s a scene when Jesus has agreed to meet with Nicodemus, who’s the chief priest among the Sanhedrin, but they’ve decided to do it at night, in the dark, to protect both of them from being observed.”
“Did that really happen?”
“Scripturally, yes. But as the scene is written for the show, two of Jesus’ disciples plead to go along, as bodyguards. At first Jesus refuses to have them, but then he relents. However, he makes a rule. The two disciples will be allowed to come to the meeting, but they must stay outside. They can watch and listen from a window, but that’s all.
“As the scene is filmed, it’s very dark. Jesus and Nicodemus are on a roof, which is surrounded by a wall. The wall has an opening in it, like a window – no glazing, empty space. There are candles on the table where Jesus and Nicodemus sit across from one another. That’s the whole of the lighting. It’s dark nighttime. It’s really dark.”
“I was enchanted.” Ruth’s eyes were sparkling. “The way they film things in this show are so provocative. You’ve really got to watch it. You’d love it – you, of all people, actor that you are.
“So, the camera shoots some longer shots and then comes in very close, focusing back and forth on the faces of the two men as they talk back and forth.
“Nicodemus has many questions. He’s really trying, really very urgently, to understand this man who makes miracles occur. But he has a hard time fully getting what Jesus is trying to tell him.
“In the end, Jesus pauses, thinks. Then he takes a deep breath and speaks again, summing it up. Now the camera is very tight on his face. ‘God loved the world so much,’ Jesus says, ‘that he sent his son into the world, so that anyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life.’”
Ruth stared at me. “Get it?”
I shook my head.
“What’s the single most famous line in the whole New Testament?”
She smiled. She nodded. “I confess it passed me by. I heard it, but it passed me by. I knew the line so well that it just rolled right out inside my head. And I was just so totally much into their conversation, the two men, and Jesus was so earnest in his effort to help Nicodemus understand.
“Then suddenly I thought, Wait, wait, wait – who are the disciples outside the window listening?
“Not – not…John?
And the camera cuts to the disciples, and one of them is John. And he is scribbling in a notebook.
Ruth came over and knelt down before me. She took my right hand and held it with her good hand. “A shiver ran through me,” she said.
She went on. “Where do the words come from? You want to know where the words come from? You want to have light shining from the actual words? Not cover them up with a basket? Have the actual people speak the actual words? You want to focus on the core truth that resides in those words?”
She took a deep breath and blew it out sharply. “The Chosen is fiction. It’s not the Bible. But what an idea! What a brilliant writerly idea they’ve put across! What if the single most famous line in the entire New Testament is an actual quote from the Son of God? What if it was, and not something made up by the author! What if it was?”
Her excitement radiated through the kitchen. It radiated within me. Ruth was lavishing for me the magnificence of art…and showing me the core of the New Testament all at once.
That may have been the moment when I realized – for my life – that I must subsume myself within the very core mystery of Jesus … and perhaps then I might even marry this woman.
I mastered my big part, with its words and its light.
And since all of you know my wife Ruth, clearly you can guess about the rest.