Below is a short story I wrote in response to Isaiah 61.
It was dark and dank. Little light filtered in. No ceiling could be seen but the walls pressed close on each side, circular, no lines to break up the monotony. Endlessly the foul-smelling bricks went round and round. Nothing distinct caught the eye in the gloomy darkness.
In the center of this foul place lay a creature. Shriveled and misshapen, it sprawled out and unprotected. Large eyes, incessantly wet, stared sightlessly out of an oversized head. It had long ago exhausted its capacity for tears. Its mottled, red skin festered with sores that wept putrefying ooze, constantly picked at by the creature’s sharp nails. The smell of infection permeated the small space. It never smiled but if it had it would be a grisly sight. It boasted razor sharp teeth that could tear through flesh and bone, stained dark red and a pointed black tongue that could lash out and destroy anyone or anything that dared approach.
To look at it, one might think it had gasped its last breath long ago. But with careful observation, one could see its sunken chest rise and fall as it gathered its strength. Then periodically with a burst of energy, the creature would twitch in an attempt to get up from its degraded position. With a moan of pure agony, it would soon collapse and return to its previous condition. New wounds would appear from the latest struggle to pull itself up. A careful examination would reveal the chains that chaffed at wrist and ankle, holding the creature down. Small hooks were buried deep in its flesh from head to foot, tearing and interring themselves deeper with every movement.
Mostly unaware of anything and everything that was not its own pain, the creature spent its days in solitude. Tepid, black liquid covered the floor of the small cell. From this the creature derived its sustenance, licking up whatever ran past its parched lips. The liquid provided no nourishment; day by day, the creature grew thinner. Each drink twisted the creature’s insides more, turning them to the same consistency and color as the liquid itself. The hooks and chains stretched allowing the creature to further curl in upon itself.
If the creature had had a mirror, it might have seen a patch of uncorrupted skin, a tooth that was not yet sharpened or a wound that had healed, reminding it of innocence foregone. But it had no such mirror.
The creature had no recollection of the past or any thought of the future. It just was.
Then one day the creature became aware of a presence. The creature felt it, warmth where before there was only a chill. But it did not have the strength to lift its head from the mire.
Later the creature heard a sizzle of something burning and felt a hook being removed from its raw flesh. It barely struggled, too weak to take much interest in the release.
The presence never left. It was a comfort to the creature to not be alone. But where conscious thought still operated, in the recesses of its mind, it was ashamed. Naked, exposed, disgusting, with no way to even lift its watering eyes to this presence, would its companion grow tired of waiting and leave? Once it discovered the true nature of the creature, would it shield its eyes and return the creature to its previous isolation? As hooks continued to be removed, the creature became nervous. It needed to cover itself from the gaze of this stranger before it could really see and understand the beast at its feet.
With all of its remaining strength the creature pulled against the chains and the hooks, each breath agony, every nerve screaming in protest as skin ripped away from muscle and bone. Dirty rags, that it had once worn, lay to one side of the cell; the creature reached out to grab them in the hope of hiding its bleeding, bruised body from the presence but it could only touch the hem before once again collapsing under the weight of countless chains, utterly helpless, no longer able to even lick the dredges off the floor.
The presence approached the creature. The creature felt its head being lifted and gently rested on something soft. It hurt all over. Too weak to even open its eyes, it lay there waiting for the presence to recognize it for the disgusting wretch it was and to leave it to itself again. Or maybe it would have pity and put the creature out of its misery.
Instead, it felt a warm hand caress its skin. Then it felt cool, refreshing liquid on its scorched lips. Some dribbled into its aching mouth. Water! Clean, life-giving water was being offered to the pitiful creature.
Energy coursed through its frail, damaged body and it slowly opened its eyes. Light. Blinding light filled every inch of its vision. It was too pure, too good after the darkness that had been all the creature remembered. It shut its eyes tight against the light and retreated back into itself.
Then a voice came from the light. It was an ancient voice filled with the wisdom of eternity, deep and melodious. It rang out through the cell, filling it with fire but not a fire that burns. It spoke with a fire that purifies, commanding and confidant but gentle. The words caressed the creature; three words only. The creature shook its large head. Those words had been spoken in the past by others, but they were a lie. The creature knew those words would never be true, for it was too repulsive, a horror to behold and impossible to get close to.
It did not know how long they stayed that way, the creature fighting to keep its eyes closed, the light whispering those three words over and over again. Why wasn’t the light leaving? Did it take pleasure in torturing the creature with empty words that would never be true?
But the presence, the light, did not leave. Relentless patience incarnate. It rocked the creature back and forth in a comforting caress. Time passed, unheeded by the cell’s occupants; water was offered and accepted. The creature regained strength and confidence.
When the creature dared open its eyes again, just slits, to protect itself, it first noticed that it could lift its head. Nothing was dragging it back to the ground. It looked at the hooks lying on the ground and heard the sizzle as the water was poured onto yet another that held its hand firmly in place. As it watched, the bond was burned away. The cords could not stand against the power of the water.
This time when it raised its eyes to the light, to the one pouring the water and releasing the creature from its bondage, it saw a face, a kind face smiling down at it. The eyes sparkled with joy and welcomed the creature. The creature looked around in confusion. Who was this man looking at with such love? Surely not the creature. And then the man took the creature’s chin in his hand. Deep, liquid brown eyes met the formerly sightless tear-stained eyes of the creature. The man breathed out the three words, “I love you.” There was no mistaking it. The creature could deny it no longer. There was no one else he could be talking to; there was no way to ignore the declaration of this stranger that claimed to love this worthless monster. And this time, it saw the truth of the words. This was no lie.
The creature resolved that it would make itself worth the love of this man who had degraded himself to enter the cell of the creature. And so with no more hooks piercing its skin, the creature released itself from the man’s arms. Sunlight streamed into the cell. Now it was obvious. The creature lived in a pit but it had become shallow, the sky could be seen where before there was only gloom. So it thought it was happy. And it began to work. Still chained, it removed bricks from the walls and began to pound them with its chains. The man must be pleased with the creature’s work. Tap, tap, tap day after day. It used the only tool at its disposal, its chains, to break down the large bricks into smaller bricks. It benefited greatly from the sunlight and occasionally it would glance at the man, sitting patiently in the cell. The man would smile at the creature, but there seemed to be a tinge of sadness in his eyes now. The creature would work harder.
One day the creature felt a familiar pain. Looking down it saw a hook digging into an old scar. Worried, it began working more frantically. Tap, tap, tap long into the night. The next day another hook appeared, ripping into pink flesh. More and more appeared until it became too painful to lift its manacled wrists to hit the bricks any longer. No, no! This was for the man! It struggled futilely until finally defeated, its face was slowly drawn back toward the black liquid that had fed it in a previous life. The man was standing beside the creature. His arms were stretched out waiting for the creature to grab hold of his hand. Had he been there the whole time, waiting and willing the creature to look up from its labors? In desperation, the creature moved to reach the man but it was too shackled, it was too painful. The man knelt beside the creature, sinking into the slime; he placed his hands beneath the creature’s head so that it would not slip into the sickening filth that awaited it at the bottom of the cell.
The creature saw that the man also had scars. The hands that held its head had deep marks. Heedless of the blood that gushed forth from the creature, the man wrapped it in the white of his clothing, staining it crimson. He was no longer smiling, he was weeping and the creature knew it was the reason for the man’s pain.
Looking into the tear-streaked face of the man, beautiful even in its pain, the creature relaxed. Bleeding, chained, naked, exposed, the creature finally and utterly released itself into the warm, scarred hands of the man who had found it in its disgusting state and had loved it anyway. As the release penetrated its soul, the chains fell from its wrists and ankles, the hooks disappeared and the creature felt a warm breeze on its face. The breeze fluttered through fabric. Still cradled in the man’s arms the creature looked down and saw it was wearing a white flowing robe. The grime was washed away. The blood had disappeared. Its tongue tentatively glided over once-pointed teeth. The man set the creature down on grass, greener than anything the creature had ever seen. In fact, all the colors around it were more vibrant, the sensations of the wind and the sound of the nearby ocean more potent. For the first time, the creature knew what it felt like to live and not simply be alive.
The creature held tightly to the man’s hand, looking adoringly up at his beaming face. The man looked lovingly down at the creature he had rescued and called her his friend. She never wanted to leave the side of the man. She would go wherever he led.
It has been years since that day. She has been led to places she would never have imagined from her tiny cell. Sometimes she has let go of the man’s hand; something she said she would never do. Sometimes she longs for the familiarity of the chains. In moments of forgetfulness, she thirsts for the foul black liquid. Sometimes she forgets she is holding the man’s hand until she tries to walk on her own and cannot. Falling to her knees, she cries out and there the he is, right where he has always been.
She has looked into many pits and seen other creatures, much like she was, shriveled and misshapen. Some have cried out for rescue and the man has descended to help them out while the she watched in awe. Many have found it easier to sit in their rot, having been disappointed too many times, no hope remaining, unable to believe the three words that man says. They close their eyes against the light and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the warmth that radiates from his presence. But her heart holds compassion. She visits these pits with the man and they wait together until the other creature chooses to see the open arms of the man.
She has been transformed; she is no longer the pathetic, grotesque miscreant she was. She is still is far from beautiful. But hand in hand with the personification of beauty and light, she cannot help but reflect that with whom she stands. She walks from pit to pit, with the hope that many miserable creatures will join her on this journey with the man, the Master, a journey that will end in a healing of all the scars, an end to all of the tears and perfect beauty.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.