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In memory, I return to the first morning of my arrival at East Gloucester, Massachusetts, stretch into the bleached lawn chair next to the ocean, and open my citified world to nature’s expansive healing. Desperate is my need for watering.

October’s brilliance caps hesitant waves with opulence that lap against the base of the monolithic Brace Rock; it resembles a dusky pachyderm snoozing in the morning heat, its humps whitened by decades of excrement. Against luminous skies, crowds of herring gulls honk into fly-space, while others pump their wings, catch columns of wind, gliding in somersaults and pinwheels. Like cobra helicopters, twin ravens pan the boulder-strewn shore until they vanish.

I breathe deeply in my chair, then notice surf-bubbles skittering among handfuls of sandpipers, toeing the grainy sand like princesses. Upon stringy brackish seaweed, mosquitoes crowd like irritable shoppers in check-out lines.

Nearby, splashy quilts of wild grasses, golden rod, and sumac enliven miles of bronzed granite rocks along the coast. A solitary honeybee suns upon the breast of a goldenrod spear. A rare Monarch butterfly collapses its circus wings and alights on the fringed tip of purple loose strife.

A cobalt sky smiles upon this riotous foreplay. Time hangs suspended upon boney and gossamer wings. Within this jeweled kaleidoscope, an unseen power reveals her Soul and invites surrender.

Again, it has been done. I’m washed, clean.

Outside my study window, a shivering branch catches my attention: upon it has alighted a plump tree sparrow, its short beak foraging for insects. Upon its sandy-colored head and thin striped tail feathers, the morning sun plays like a child messing with finger-paints: shadows and light kiss. In no hurry, the sparrow’s foraging continues, as also its twittering enlivening my backyard: a microcosm for what occurs in many parts of the world.

But who has time to look? To enjoy, the myriad gifts freely offered in our daily bread? Certainly, matters of extreme urgency had filled much of my earlier life.

Only during Gloucester retreats did my inner chatter cease, and the seascape come alive with the message of Jesus: Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

So the tree sparrow continues carrying the message of feeding. I have only to look out my study window to be filled—and the nourishment is always different.

Restoration specialists use precise tools to remove accretions of paint-overs, dust, and discoloration.

Such a specialist in the academic world is Reza Aslan, author of Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus (2013)—research, his tool to fashion the historical Jesus within first-century Palestine, a large swath of the Roman-occupied Middle East filled with messiahs and Jewish bandits, and their subsequent executions.

Aslan’s skill as a writer enhances this narrative. Each chapter’s accompanying notes, index, bibliography, maps, and chronology facilitate the readers’ tracking and amplifying his conclusions. And they are startling, in some instances major corrections to my sense of Jesus, illiterate day laborer and itinerant preacher with his followers. The violent backdrop of this story bristles with suspicion and terror—a world, like our own.

Roman history only records Jesus’s birth in 4 B.C.E – 6 C.E., and his crucifixion and death as a seditionist at the hands of Pontius Pilate in 30 – 33 C.E. In its aftermath, a handful of Jesus’s followers banded together beneath a portico in the Temple’s outer court to remember and share the story.

Further complicating this incipient picture of Jesus comes Paul of Tarsus in 37 C.E., self-proclaimed as the “first Apostle.” His preaching and letters to Hellenistic communities clashed with the “unsophisticated” Church of Jerusalem, then, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, another surprise.

For decades, oral tradition continued carrying Jesus’s story until 70 C.E when Mark first wrote his Gospel expressed in rudimentary Greek; the other Gospels Mathew and Luke, written separately from each other, between 90 and 100 C.E.; and John’s with a mystical bent, between 100 and 120 C.E. Among them, differences abound. Later during those first centuries, what others thought they had heard became woven into other varied canonical and non-canonical texts collected by copyists.

As the story of Jesus spread, so did the need to downplay his ignominious death on the cross and to cookie-cutter a more presentable Jesus for the Christian Church, thus its politicization under the fourth-century Emperor Constantine. But what Aslan produces is a zealous adherent of Torah teachings and practice—Jesus of Nazareth, caught within the cross-hairs of Imperialistic Rome and its sycophants in first-century Jerusalem. His spirit and teaching live on—it’s still about conversion of the heart.

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