Friday, January 30, 2004

A farewell to hucksters?

My telephone has been strangely silent the past two days. No messages on my voice mail from three different satellite TV companies in one day telling me they'll "be in my neighborhood." Nobody telling me I've won a cruise. Not even a call telling me I've been selected or pre-qualified for ______________________________ (fill in the blank with the most annoying ripoff you can think of).

It's been two days since regulations went into effect requiring telephone solicitors to identify their phone number and company name on caller IDs. I wasn't sure how much impact this would have on me, since I live in Florida -- the spawning ground of boiler room operations and home of every telephone scam, con and rip off there is, especially the ones targeting the elderly.

These are the most heinous. They make people think they've ordered some piece of junk they didn't order, then tell them they have to pay some big bill for it. (They'll send them statements in the mail, telling them how much they need to pay.)

Having watched my own mother's and some of my parishioners' struggles with confusion and poor memory, I find this to be the worst kind of thievery. These robbers should be tarred and feathered and run out on a rail. To be biblical, God's wrath should come down on them for their heartless, shameless, unrepentant behavior.

Anyway, a little less biblically, I wondered if this new regulation would have any impact here in sunny Florida, where the hucksters do pretty much whatever they want to do. I came home last night and found not even one message. And again tonight. Are they nervous about having to identify themselves? You bet!

Of course, I never talked with any of them, anyway. I just let voice mail pick up any calls that came unidentified. They never used to leave messages (again, scared of identifying themselves), but in the last months I've been targeted with lots of canned recordings.

I sort of feel sorry for the little, local, honest businesses who try to contact their customers. People are so tired of this form of harassment -- to coin a new phrase, telephone stalking -- by these determined hucksters that many people won't talk to any commercial caller.

I think the only ones who make any money out of telemarketing are the crooks who lie to our elderly population, as I described above, or who tap into people's greed, promising them pie in the sky, the same tactics the infomercial people use: "You, too, can be a multi-millionaire just working part-time out of your home" or using their "proven" success formulas for investment, real estate, etc. Their schemes always require something pricy that must be ordered from them. Don't people read the warnings about these pitches?

I wonder if this new regulation will give us a real respite from annoying callers, or if they're just temporarily regrouping and figuring out new strategies?

Either way, I'll enjoy it as long as it lasts!

Thursday, January 29, 2004

February is the coldest month

My best friend M lost her mother to death Monday evening. It had been a month-long struggle for this delightful woman who drank too much and smoked too much and lost her health because of it, but never her zest for life. Seeing her on a respirator day after day, her body subjected to procedure after procedure, gradually losing hope for her, was the worst part for her family -- until she was gone. Gone too soon. She should have had more healthy years ahead of her.

Now the family is in the shocky, robotic stage of handling the funeral arrangements and all the practical, practical details that allow them to focus on things (anything) other than their grief.

I've been around death by virtue of being involved in the healing ministry. That doesn't stop it from hitting me in the stomach when it's someone I know and care about, like M's mother, and it calls up memories of all those other griefs stored in my mind.

Death is a cold monster.

And part of coping with death is facing my own mortality. There's that little core in me that can't believe that I'll ever die, but that core gets jarred out of place at times like this.

It's not death itself -- being dead -- that seems so cruel. I have confidence in life eternal, whether it's the full-body resurrection of Old Testament or in spirit only. This is where we find our complete healing. But the process of dying can be nightmarish. Cruel.

I was young and totally unprepared as I watched my father die. I saw him lose his mobility, his continence and his lucidity, all replaced with pain and indignity. He died in February in bitterly cold weather in the mountains of Virginia. Even now, so many years later in Florida, February is a chill, gray month for me.

I know that Dad is all right now, as is M's mother. I trust in that provision.

But what about the sufferings of a disease-wracked body? This is true evil. The sight our loved one suffering exacerbates our grief and makes us worry for ourselves. Where is God's provision in this?

I've prayed for those who were in a comatose or delirious condition as they approached death. I feel the spirit within us remains awake and aware, despite the comatose state of the body. Someone whose spirit is in touch with the Holy Spirit draws on the comfort, strength and confidence He brings. A true gift from God.

I believe God ministers to us in our extremis in ways that are unseen by the human eye. It's a matter of faith and of what I've observed.

The comatose condition itself is also a gift, ameliorating the worst suffering death inflicts on us as it ravages our bodies, as are medicines and painkillers. God's provision is there, too.

God's mercy searches out every path to help us through this very short time of transition -- as it does at all times. Does this make sense? He heals. His presence brings healing into even the most painful memories and gives us confidence for the future.

To trust in God is to trust Him with everything -- even dying. He lifts us from it as on eagle's wings.

His grace is sufficient.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

The best part about today

was the Gospel reading for today, from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 4, verses 14-21:

"Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.' And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

What a powerfully moving piece of scripture. Jesus was telling them who He was and why He came: He was (is) the Messiah, the anointed one of God, come to set us free from the oppression of our laws -- the ones we made, not God, and from the things we do and from the evil that is done to us from the world around us -- captivity, prejudice, hatred, fear, disease and infirmity, death. He is our Savior, our Redeemer, our Healer, our Deliverer.

He came to bring us grace. The year of the Lord's favor. Amen.

I can imagine the stunned faces in the synagogue.

The second-best part about today:

the New Testament reading, from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 12-27, where he tells us we are one body with many members, and in "one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit..."

This just cries out against dividing people into groups of who are acceptable and who are not acceptable in the eyes of God. If we are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, then neither are we straight or gay in His eyes, in the Kingdom of God. I really don't understand how any professed, praying Christian can have toward gays/lesbians the loathing I have seen on some faces and heard in some voices, even as these Christians profess to love them.

I think this part of the captivity from which Jesus came to free us.

We are all, in the communion of saints -- all believers, past present and future -- the body of Christ.

Thanks be to God.
A sense of relief

I sat in church today, looking at my favorite piece of stained glass -- a representation of Jesus holding a lamb close to his heart. I wondered if it would be the last time I would sit in the little church in the parish I have grown to love so much. The answer came back, "No." I may not see much of it for a while, but I felt as though I were being given a reassurance that it won't be gone to me forever.

One reason I went there this morning was because I wanted to hear what Father Dearest had to say about the diocesan convention and about his post in the AAC. True to form, he slid it all by. He talked about the innocuous resolutions on the agenda at the convention (nobody, it seemed, was for racism or against good water) and said, oh yes, there was that little thing about the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. He'll explain about that at a later time. When it can be slid into our parish as a fait accompli, I suppose.

Another reason I went was that I wanted to take communion to a parishioner to whom I've acted as a lay eucharistic minister for the past two or three years. I didn't go to say goodbye -- we didn't even discuss any of the recent events. She's oblivious to the diocesan convention, the AAC, the Network and all of it. I went just in case I end up without a chance to see her for a while.

This all sounds maudlin and dreary, but I actually drove away from church humming a tune, enjoying the bright, clear day.

I've had a growing discouragement with our leadership. It has been weighing on me (as you might guess from reading my positings), and today I felt some of that weight lift. I may not transfer membership to another parish right away, but knowing I've made this decision, after months of prayer, brought a sense of freedom.

I'm not sure exactly what the future holds, but I'm trusting it to the Holy Spirit. May His guidance be on us all.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Hijacking the church

I've probably bored everyone with my rantings about the church, but I have to add this chapter. This evening, I came back from the vestry retreat totally disheartened and depressed.

Our rector, Father Dearest, has been up to his neck in the AAC. He's going to the Plano conference next week (his second trip in the last few months). This information wasn't divulged exactly willingly.

The whole vestry retreat had been focused on anything else to distract us from what is happening. The shit hit the fan when I questioned the minutes of last week's annual parish meeting. Father Dearest had made a statement at the meeting that both he and the vestry had selected delegates to the diocesan annual convention. I sat up straight. This was news to me -- in fact, there had been no discussion at any vestry meeting about delegates to the convention. All three are extremely conservative. Father Dearest didn't have to take it to the vestry for approval. Maybe he wanted to make it appear to dubious parishioners that he and the vestry were in agreement on the delegates.

When the minutes of the meeting were brought up for approval, I questioned that statement. Father Dearest had to admit it hadn't been mentioned to the vestry. An oversight. Well, let's vote on it now. After all, the delegates have already been to the pre-convention meetings and been briefed on the agenda, etc. Someone else called attention to the fact that these extremely conservative individuals were not representative of the parish as a whole. On what issues would they be voting at the convention? What was on the agenda?

Well, the agenda is AAC platform all the way. There are resolutions to ask the Presiding Bishop to resign, to demand sanctions for all who voted to ratify Gene Robinson as Bishop, etc. One of the ultraconservatives on the vestry said we could look at the AAC Web site to see what the church is doing.

I said the AAC is NOT the church.

Father Dearest said he didn't want to talk about all this stuff. The controversy just stresses him out too much, he said. He just couldn't deal with it. Let's move on to other topics.

We don't need to discuss these important matters in vestry meetings. We shouldn't ask any questions. We shouldn't rock the boat.

It slipped out about the trip to Texas for an AAC meeting. Even one of the conservative good old boys was a little put out that he hadn't know about that.

Father Dearest said he has no intention of leaving the Episcopal Church of the USA at this time. That's cutting no ice with me. The AAC strategy has been leaked: not to officially leave the national church, just do it de facto. Be prepared to be disobedient to the Presiding Bishop, they're telling their constituents in preparation. These renegade bishops plan to thumb their nose at the church but keep the Episcopal name so that they can keep the property in their Dioceses. They've had lawyers investigating how to get the property and this is the only way they can. And they're not convicted enough in their principles to leave without the property.

The parish-by-parish attempt at AAC sign-up wasn't successful. They're going to do it at the Diocesan level. This Diocesan convention is going to be crucial to the future of the Diocese. But we shouldn't bother our little heads about it.

This boat-rocker has had about enough. I'm going to stick around a bit longer just in case there's a miracle or some revelation from God that I must stay. Otherwise I'll be out of there. I'm not sure what to do. I want to stay an Episcopalian, but it's a long drive to any church in a neighboring diocese. Maybe I should start visiting some of the other denomination's churches in the area.

Jesus told us not to put our trust in earthly leaders because they will betray us. He was right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Tribulations of an amateur blogger

Well, now I have a place for your comments again. They had suddenly disappeared--apparently due to vendor problems. I had to go to two other providers, messed up my template with the first, finally got comments added with the second. Now I'll have to add back the links I lost when I reinstalled the template. I think I'll save that for next time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

A Shepherd's Story
Part III (Conclusion)
Note: The beginning of this story is in the posting of Jan. 6, below.

Said did not respond to Joel's question right away. He looked
at his two taciturn companions, then spoke to them in a foreign
tongue. After a short, emotional-sounding exchange, Said
turned back to Joel.

"You have referred to him as the Messiah. What does that

Joel stammered, "He is the Messiah, the Anointed One of

"Ah. And what does this mean? What has he been anointed to

"To lead Israel. To bring us freedom from oppression, from the
yoke of captivity, as it is said in Scripture. To be our deliverer.
I felt the holiness surrounding that child the night he was born.
He is greatly favored of God."

"Joel, do you believe he is here to do more than free you from
the Romans? Do you think my companions and I would have
interest enough in opposition to Roman jurisdiction in a small
town of Judea to travel this far? For a look at a child who
might one day be a revolutionary?"

Joel squatted, leaning on his shepherd’s crook, and gazed into
the street as if he might see the answer inscribed there. He
looked up at Said and the others in puzzlement.

"I don't know all the reasons God has brought him here," he
replied, his voice quavering a bit. "I do not understand such
things. I avoid the Romans as much as I can. A shepherd
doesn't have much truck with such, anyway.

"I remember the night the child Jesus was born. Holiness filled
the night, the air, the sky. He can only be sent from God. He
brings hope for the future. Surely he came to restore the reign
of the House of David. An angel directed me to the child to
worship him."

"Just as we came so far to worship him," replied Said.

They had arrived at the tiny home of Joseph and his family.
Joel knocked at the door, and the foreign men entered at
Joseph's invitation. Joel stood on the small stoop of doorway,
watching in awe, as the three men simultaneously sank to their
knees in front of the sleeping child. Their hands had reached
into the depths of their gowns as they entered, and now those
hands lifted gifts in gold boxes toward the child, though their
heads remained bowed to the floor.

Joel gaped until Joseph came to the door and softly closed it
and the tableau disappeared from Joel's view.

At home, Joel looked in on his son Isaac. Joel's heart turned in
tenderness as he gazed upon his own sleeping son. His
daughter, Deborah, scarcely a year older than Isaac, woke and
clamored to be held in Joel's arms. As he sat rocking her back
and forth, her arms tight about his neck, Joel thought, "This
chiild is truly the apple of my eye. And my son, Isaac. Here is
the future."

Joel tossed and turned in the bed he shared with his wife,
Miriam, waking her. He told her all the events of the night. She
professed to understand no more than Joel, and troubled, they
held each other tightly as the hours marched toward dawn.

Early dawn was announced by a donkey's loud bray. Joel
pulled the cover more tightly about his head to shut out the
grating sound, but the racket was persistent. Sighing, Joel climbed
out of bed.There seemed to be a rash of noisy animals around
Bethlehem lately.

"The morning is scarcely here," he announced to Joseph, who
was tightening the strap holding a load of tents and cooking
equipment on the protesting donkey. "Why are you here, and so
early? Where are you going?" he asked, as he surveyed the

Joseph was a tall and bony man, with great hands that set defly
about the task of tightening the straps on this donkey
and another one, on which sat Jesus and Mary. There was a
tight, white line about Joseph’s mouth.

"Joel, I came to warn you. Get your children out of Bethlehem.
Isaac is in danger. Herod is afraid of losing his throne to the
Messiah. He has heard of the birth in Bethlehem. He will
stop at nothing. He will kill all the young, male children in
Bethlehem to protect his seat on the throne. An angel brought
me a warning and the Magi confirmed this to me. They had
dreams of their own, sent by God as a warning to us all."

Joel felt the color drain from his face. "Wait. I will gather my
family and we will go with you."

"No," said Joseph. "We must go alone to Egypt. This is the
prophecy we received. Just heed my warning and take your son
to safety."

Joel quickly gathered his family and went to Samuel's house.
His cousin nodded tightly when Joel told him what was astir.
Soon, a number of donkeys were laden for travel.

Joel and Samuel went through town, shouting warnings.
Ebenezer, disheveled and apparently just pulled from his bed,
appeared in the street and spoke belligerently. "The mad
shepherd is telling his tales again. Joel, I will have you arrested
for causing a disturbance if you persist in these insane
accusations toward King Herod."

Samuel walked to the front of the family group, his hand on his
sword. "I don't think you’ll be doing any such thing,

Ebenzer backed into his quarters as quickly as a turtle's head
pops back into its shell. Still, Joel and Samuel were
disappointed at the small number who heeded their
warnings. They finally took their families to the sheep corral,
where they called their flocks and headed northeast out of
Bethlehem toward the Jordan River, sheep preceding the little
donkey caravan.

We remained in eastern Judea for many weeks, even fording
the river and and staying on its east bank for a time. We
wandered with the sheep, stopping wherever there was decent
grass to be found for them and keeping a watchful eye for
robbers, for we were in unfamiliar country.

Finally, Samuel went to see if it was safe to return. He returned
haggard and pale, with this story: When he reached
Bethlehem, he found Ebenezer's head rotting on a stake at the
city gate. Ebenezer had collaborated with Herod’s men, telling
them which households had young children.

Herod's minions were not discriminating. It was not only the
young, male children, there were many children, both male and
female, from infancy to age five, six and even seven who died
by the sword of Herod. His men swept through the streets of
Bethlehem and out into the surrounding countryside like
locusts, devouring the life they found in their path. Then,
suddenly, it was over, and Herod’s forces withdrew. That had
happened a number of weeks before Samuel's return, It was
deemed safe to return to Bethlehem now.

Return to Bethlehem we did, though the town was never the
same again. There was so much grief it permeated the walls of
the city. I mourned for all those known to me who perished, but
counted myself blessed that my family had been spared.

After a while, I began to be aware of accusing glares from
some of those who had lost their children. It was as though
their anger sought any outlet it could find, and one outlet was
me and my unscathed family. Some felt I had brought this on
with my talk of the Messiah. After many conversations, Samuel
and I once more packed up our families, this time permanently,
and we moved north to the border of Samaria and settled there.
I never heard any more of the Messiah child and I wondered
what happened to him.

Samuel and his wife were blessed with seven children who grew to
adulthood and our flocks multiplied as well. To our surprise,
we prospered in this new land.

My son Isaac continued to grow in stature. He was such a
delight to me. He was a skilled shepherd by the age of 12 and
he could cite the Scriptures as if he’d grown up in the temple.

One day, Isaac went out and did not return. I was not concerned
at first, for Isaac loved being out in the fields. He loved
watching the stars in the evening. But when he had not returned
the next day, we set out to search for him. My concern turned
to alarm when I found a few of the sheep wandering aimlessly,
separated from the rest of the flock.

I found my Isaac at the bottom of a small ravine. He held a
young lamb in his arms. Both of them were dead. Isaac must
have gone into the ravine after the little one and lost his footing
as he climbed back out with the lamb in his arms. His head was
split open on a stone.

I picked up my son's lifeless body and cradled it to me. I hear
my voice saying, "no, no" over and over again. Sobs racked my
body until I thought they would separate my flesh from my
bone. Finally, I carefully wrapped my son's crushed head in
cloth and his body in a blanket.

I stood at the bottom of that ravine as rage filled me.
"God," I screamed. "How could you? How could you let my
son die? You saved Isaac from Herod just to let him die here?
Cruel, cruel joke. And you presume to send a Messiah. Keep
your Messiah, God. Take him back. I don’t want him. I don’t
want anything from you but my son." I spat. I picked up the
blood-soaked stone and hurled it as far and hard as I could, as if
I were throwing it at God himself.

I was in a rage of anguish for many weeks. It was only the
ministrations of Miriam and Deborah that finally restored any
sanity to me. They tended to me ceaselessly until one day I
looked at their tear-stricken faces and realized that they were
grieving doubly -- for both Isaac and me, for I had been lost to
them, too. I was ashamed of my selfishness in front of these
two beloved women, for Deborah was entering womanhood
now, and still the apple of my eye. She would marry in a short

Yet a stream of bitterness tinged my life for several years.

It was Deborah who gave me my grandson Zachary before she
was widowed and I found myself tending to her grief. It is her
son Zachary who is here with me now, and he is a part of the
story as yet unfolded.

Zachary has been my most steadfast companion since the time
he could walk. He has heard the story of the angels, the star, the
Messiah and the Magi many times. He has also heard the story
of the pogrom on the children of Bethlehem. Zachary was as
quick and intelligent as his uncle, Isaac, and even more full of

We sent him to study with the rabbis. His curious mind was
concerned with many things. He came home with stories of
John the baptizer, whom many called the Messiah. I paid little
heed. I knew the anointed one was named Jesus, though I
had yet to hear more about him. Even though I had professed
not to care about the Messiah any longer, sometimes I guiltily
wondered about my curse at Isaac's death. Had I caused
something to happen to the one chosen of God?

Zachary would not let the matter of John the baptizer rest. He
pestered me to take him to see this John preach and baptize the
repentant. After all, suggested Zachary, maybe it was the same
one from Bethlehem -- maybe his parents had changed his
name to protect him when they fled from Herod.

Well, I have a hard time denying my grandson, so after a time
we headed north to the area where John was known to have his
ministry. After some inquiries, we made our way to a wide,
shallow pool on the Jordan where John was said to be

The afternoon sun was brilliant as we made our way along the

The sun glinted the way it can sometimes in the afternoon,
turning eddies of water into molten silver which merged into
cool whorls of blue and green. The bark of the oaks and
tamarisk trees shimmered silver. Joel had to squint to see
across the water.

A man stood in the water, north up the river from Joel’s and
Zachary’s position. Wading out a bit into the river, holding on
to the branch of a tamarisk overhanging the water, they could
see what he was doing. He had a shock of unruly,
chestnut-brown hair. His clothes were of rough fiber. He was
sunburned and muscular.

"It must be John the baptizer," whispered Zachary. He and Joel
made their way closer up the bank, hanging on to the tree limbs
as if to dear life, even though the water was only thigh-high, for
neither could swim. They found the river intimidating.

Now they could hear the words.

It was John the baptizer. He prayed over a family, raising his
arms to God as he prayed for forgiveness, pouring water over
their heads each in turn as they stood in the shallows. The
baptizer then put his hands on the shoulders of each as he
exhorted them to a new life. The family made its way up the
bank of the river.

Joel started to make his way toward John, then
stopped. The air seemed to be as heavy as the silvered water
and he was aware of his own labored breaths. With Zachary
peering over his shoulder, he watched as another man entered
the river. The man looked rather like the baptizer, slightly
taller, but with the same shock of chestnut hair and the same
sunburned, muscular frame. Like the baptizer, he looked as
though he had been spending time in the wilderness.

The man waded to within a few feet of the baptizer. The two
similar-looking men looked at each other. The baptizer, who
had been full of gesticulations a few minutes before, seemed
overcome with the same languor Joel felt, for he simply stood
motionless in the water, staring at the newcomer until the man
spoke, asking for baptism. John the baptist stared at him
blankly for another moment.

"I cannot," he said. "I dare not."

"It is necessary. Do it," said the second.

The air around the river seemed to be congealing. Joel had
experienced something like this only once before. They were in
complete silence except for the slight murmur of the river and
the humming of one insect.

With trembling hand, John scooped water from the river and
poured it over the second man's head, pronouncing the words
of baptism. Joel heard Zachary gasp as the air shimmered more
brightly and became a solid white mass above the head of
the newly baptized man. It descended on him and about him.
The man disappeared in the whiteness for a moment, then the
whiteness suddenly radiated from him in all directions. His face
was shining white. The air was thrumming now, as if God
were speaking.

Joel looked at John, then Zachary, whose faces were covered
with hoar. "Shekinah," said Joel. He knew his own face was
similarly transformed. "It is the glory of God." Joel felt as
rooted as one of the trees. He could not have lifted a foot if his life
depended on it. He swayed like a sapling in a springtime storm.

Jesus stood still, his eyes closed, for a number of minutes. Joel
realized that everyone was as transfixed as he himself was.
Finally, the taller man clasped the baptizer’s shoulders and
spoke softly to him. Then, Joel realized in a state of panic, the
eyes of the Messiah were fixed on him. He waded easily to
Joel, who was still frozen to the spot. The man’s eyes were
large, brown and full of compassion.

"Joel," he said. "I came so that Isaac will have eternal life.
Even though he is dead, he will live again. You will both share
in the Kingdom of God."

The tightness in Joel’s throat prevented him from speaking. He
looked at Jesus with awe, his chest too tight to suck in air,
every nerve, every fiber quivering. The anointed one knew
Joel’s grief. He must know Joel’s blasphemy, too. Faintness
began to overtake Joel.

"Joel, your sins are forgiven," said the Messiah, taking Joel's
arm so he could not slip into the water. Joel could see nothing
but Jesus' face, Jesus' brimming eyes looking into his own
with an empathy that made Joel want to weep. Joel suddenly
understood the Magi. This was not a Messiah of sword and
battlefield, but a gift of God, of very God himself, who brought
a different salvation.

"Emmanuel," Joel whispered. He began to cry, for himself, for
a world that demanded such a Messiah.

The Messiah spoke to Zachary also that day. He said that
Zachary would hear things that would tell him it was time to
seek him out.

We have been hearing more and more reports of the ministry of
the one called Jesus of Nazareth, of his healings and parables.
Zachary is preparing to go to Galilee to find and follow him.
His mother will go with him. Deborah said she must serve the
Messiah also.

I, Joel, am too old now for such travel. I will wait here in
Judea with my Miriam. I am at peace. The Kingdom of God
will come.

All this I tell you truly. These events occurred just as I have
said. I speak at the urging of my grandson, Zachary, who
said that a record must be made of these events. He will take
the scroll with him to Galilee.

May the Lord bless all who read or hear this account.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I wanted to write a verse for Epiphany to complete "A Shepherd's Story," but what started coming to me instead was this little Bible-based story that I've been working on for the past couple of nights.

A Shepherd's Story
Part III

A scribe is taking down these words as I, Joel, recount the events. I
am doing this at the insistence of my grandson, Zachary. I don't
know who will pay attention to the ramblings of an old man, for I
am now in my sixtieth year, my knees and knuckles swollen with
the pains of age and my eyes growing weak.

I am a witness to miracle, and this is the story I must tell you.
Some of it I have told you already, of the night I saw the new star
being formed in the heavens and the birth of the Messiah.

That star remained in the heavens over Bethlehem, a sign. I
pondered on it each night, and I asked Joseph and Mary its import,
but they could not answer.

I continued to visit that small family, to be in the presence of that
child. One night, a caravan appeared in Bethlehem...

With his small flock secured in the corral, Joel walked toward the
darkening streets of Bethlehem and his family home. He sang a
little song of joy, for he had been blessed with a child of his own, a
boy, now four months old. It had become Joel's ritual, upon
entering the house, to pick up his son and hold him high as both
laughed in delight.

Tonight, Joel was distracted by the loud complaints of a camel.
He changed his course and found a small crowd gathered around
as the camel, impatient for a turn at a watering bucket, spit at his
handler and yanked the reins, dragging the hapless handler a few
feet closer to another camel taking his turn at the water, who now
screamed and spit, also. The crowd roared in laughter at the twin
furrows left in the dirt by the handler’s feet.

“You cursed home to every flea and demon in the land,” screamed
the mucus-covered handler, hitting the camel with his whip. This
incited the crowd to more merriment.

Joel's mouth opened at the sight of the elegantly tooled saddles
atop the camels and the squares of heavy fabric in shades of
brilliant red, purple and green which covered the camels beneath
the saddles.

"Why, there is more wealth atop those camels than in the whole
town of Bethlehem," Joel said to himself. A number of mules were
laden with tents and provisions.

Several men dressed in heavily-brocaded robes belted with
gleaming gold and silver were talking to the elders.

"Who are they?" Joel asked his cousin Samuel.

"I don't know," replied Samuel. "Some say they are kings from
afar. Some say they are foreign rabbis of great knowledge."

Joel and Samuel edged a little closer to hear the conversation going
on between one of the elders, Ebenezer, and one of the foreigners.

Ebenezer laughed heartily. "King of the Jews? You are seeking the
King of the Jews?” His eyes fixed on Joel. “Here, Joel. Joel
knows all about Messiahs and kings and such. Joel, you take these
strangers to meet the King of the Jews. Take them to his palace."
Ebenezer laughed again. "And you visitors, it is customary to make
an offering to the temple of the town you visit. Plus something
extra for the watering of your animals and servants, and extra for a
guide to take you to the King of the Jews."

Ebenezer was a fool, and a greedy one, thought Joel. Ebenezer, like
most who had heard the stories of the shepherds, dismissed them as
the product of too much wine too late at night, though none could
come up with a satisfactory explanation for the star that remained
over Bethlehem.

After a few minutes negotiating the offering with the elder, the
strangers followed Joel through the narrow streets. Joel eyed the
men as they walked. All had bronze skin and black hair, but each
spoke with a differing foreign accent as they spoke softly with each
other. Two did not speak to Joel, although they gave half-bows
of acknowledgment.

The one who had been negotiating with Ebenezer had introduced
himself as Said of the farside of Persia. He asked Joel, "Why was
that man laughing about the King of the Jews? Who is this King
of the Jews to whom you are taking us?"

Joel looked at Said in surprise. "I thought you must know about
him if you are seeking him."

"Yes, yes. We know about him. But we don’t know who he is,"
replied Said, emphasizing the last word.

"Then how do you know about him? Why do you seek him?"
asked Joel.

"The study of the stars revealed the birth of a king, a holy king,
these months ago. This was confirmed to us in visions and dreams
that came to us as we studied in our monastery. The new star in the
sky is the sign of his advent. Its light shows the path to him. The
star is fixed above the sky over Bethlehem, the City of David, from
which the prophecies say the king will come. But we do not know
his name."

Joel slowed his footsteps. His voice was agitated.

"I saw that star being shaped in the long hours of the night
as I sat on a hill, watching my flock. It was a night of miracle.
The air was filled with the sound of strange songs. I don't know
how to explain. The air was crisp enough to cut, but laden with
something. It was the presence of holiness. Holiness so great
it terrified me. My kneesturned to water and I stayed on them,
praying for a long time."

Joel looked at the strangers with anxiety. The two men
accompanying Said were nodding their heads as if Joel’s words
made perfect sense to them. Joel licked his lips, then continued.

"Then a most beautiful creature appeared before me. It said my
name, then it said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the name of the Lord. Joel,
go to your Messiah, the King of Kings, and worship Him now on
bended knee. Follow the light that will lead you.’

"One ray of light from that star surrounded me then danced before
me. It led me back into Bethlehem, lighting the path before me as if
it were daytime. The light stopped at a rough accommodation and I
went in. There, I found a man with a young woman who had given
birth just hours before. The light shined brightly on them, even
though they were inside, with a roof between them and the star. A
golden light surrounded the baby. The mother said his name was

"The air was thick with holiness. It was so strong about the baby
that I felt I could touch it. Its thickness surrounded me and made
me feel faint. I dropped to my knees before the baby and touched
my head to the earthen floor and realized tears were pouring from
my eyes. I stayed that way for I know not how long. It was as if I
were no longer in that room, but taken into some other place where
time was meaningless."

Joel had started speaking rapidly, but now he paused.

"I was brought back to that rough place by the clasp of Joseph’s
hand on my shoulder. ‘It is all right,’ Joseph told me. I started
jabbering to him about the angel appearing to me and sending a ray
of light from the star to guide me here. He nodded and said, ‘Yes.
An angel appeared to me, also, to foretell the birth of this child,
sent from God.’

"We both turned to look at the infant. His mother was holding him
in her arms. She was smiling, but a track of tears was on her face,
too. She bid me come closer. I did, and reached my hand toward
the baby then stopped, afraid to touch him. His hand caught my
finger, though, and gripped it. I began to shake at the power I felt
in that tiny hand. But then a sense of peace, of calm came over me.
I looked at Mary, the mother, and Joseph, and realized they had
that same calmness about them. Even the livestock on the lower
level of the quarters were very still and quiet.

"Said, what does all this mean? Will this child sit on the throne of
Israel like David in the old days? Do your stars and study give you
knowledge of this?"