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Good Letters

20111005-shop-talk-with-priscilla-and-aquila-by-sara-zarrMy one-year Bible has me in Acts. It also has me in Kings, but I’ve temporarily abandoned the rulers of Aram, Elisha and his floating axe heads, and the mysterious woman of Shunem. I’m hoping to regain some sense of the world depicted on the pages as at least distantly related to present reality as I experience it.

Thankfully, the opening of Acts 18 gives me that. It’s there that the Apostle Paul’s life forever joins up with the lives of that melodically-named and inseparable couple of Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla, who had recently been kicked out of Italy (along with their fellow Jews) by Claudius.

In verse three we learn that “Paul lived and worked with them, for they were tentmakers just as he was.”

There are innumerable places in the Bible that strike me as these torturous little tips of icebergs, fascinating lives summed up in a brief verse or two. Doorways to life stories that would lead to more doorways and more life stories, things I want to know about these first century Christians.

Did Priscilla and Aquila first meet Paul as fellow tentmakers, or as fellow believers? How long did they all know each other before Paul moved in? How much of their time were they tentmaking, and how much of it were they preaching and teaching?

These doorway moments may not be central to the message of God’s redeeming work in history, but they hint at long and interesting untold stories about the humans behind these familiar names. Paul. Priscilla. The woman of Shunem (can’t we at least know her name?).

The names can become these sort of Flat Stanleys of religion.

Flat Stanley is a character from children’s literature, created by Jeff Brown, who is, as you may have guessed, flat. His flatness allows him to turn up in all kinds of places and contexts. He can slide under doors! He can be transported in envelopes! And, via the Flat Stanley Project, he can leave his story and go wherever you want him to and be whoever you want him to be.

Certain names from scripture appear over and over in the documented history of Christianity, and are sometimes taken from their stories and used for various and questionable purposes. It can be easy to forget the three-dimensional humans behind the names.

Acts 18:3 brings dimension to Paul, for me, in a very particular way.

I am blessed to live in a place where there’s an unusually high concentration of working writers in my field. I didn’t know that when we moved here eleven years ago, nor did I know how important that would come to be. This large community puts on group events, runs a listserv, and its members generally support one another by attending book events and sharing industry information and experiences.

Within that, I have a much smaller corps of comrades: four or five people with whom I meet regularly for writing dates, shop-talking, process-hacking, and breakfast-eating. It’s a precious thing to have these friends and colleagues, and not just have them through correspondence and screens but in three-dimensional life.

We need our colleagues. No one but another writer understands quite what the job is. No one but another teacher can fully empathize with all of the particular frustrations and joys of that calling. Only another doctor can truly listen and comprehend the concerns that fill their days and nights.

A spiritual community—that body of people who believe, more or less, what you believe, who seek a similar sort of life that you do—is central to the life of faith. But I believe that as people with specific jobs and vocations or even callings, we also need a community of fellows in those vocations.

And where these two things overlap—spiritual community and work community—something truly sacred is going on.

I imagine Paul and Priscilla and Aquila, having found each other, reveling in this convergence of faith and work. In those few words of Acts 18:3, I infer a deep satisfaction in working side by side in their trade, maybe filling some of the time by pondering the place of their work-for-money in the greater plan God had for their lives, maybe wondering aloud about Jesus’s days in carpentry and how his craft may have connected to his Son of God-ness.

They probably didn’t always dwell on a high spiritual plane. Probably sometimes they helped each other negotiate with customers, or recommended a neat tool or innovative process. I picture them by the fire at the end of the day, sharing tentmaking triumphs and failures and challenges.

Priscilla: This one time? We had to make a tent for a household of twenty-three. They all wanted to stay together!

Paul: I mean, seriously, they couldn’t kinda break up into groups of five or six for the night?

Aquila (popping an olive into his mouth and washing it down with some retsina): I know, right?

A stretch, perhaps. But for me, imagination plays a crucial role in my ability to engage with the Bible and the people in it. Picturing what is unsaid in Acts 18:3 as something akin to how it feels to be in a writing community helps me put Flat Paul back into his story, into the context of a human life.

Paul ends up taking Priscilla and Aquila with him to Ephesus for a while, before his call to travel and teach and encourage took him away. But we know from his later letters that they stayed in touch. We know that he remembered them, especially, as dear.

And, yeah, okay, Aquila and Priscilla risked their lives for Paul (Romans 16), and did other great stuff like get Apollos on the right track with his theology and maybe, in Priscilla’s case, write the Book of Hebrews.

But, I like to think Paul’s special bond with them was at least partly sealed in the act of measuring out leather, and in heads bowed and nearly touching not in prayer but over a complicated stitch, and in the satisfaction of knowing, as they watched the Corinth sunset together, that they put in a good day’s work.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Sara Zarr


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