Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rear View Mirror

"Lost and alone on some forgotten highway
Traveled by many, remembered by few
Lookin’ for something that I can believe in
Lookin’ for something that I’d like to do with my life. "
(Sweet Surrender, John Denver 1974)

            The best path through life is to travel by highway. Whether you speed or you go slowly, it is the most direct way to get where you are going. If you follow it, you will find your way home. It may often seem long and winding, full of twists and turns, with no direction ever going your way; underlying, it is constant. We spend our entire lives trying to understand why things go the way they go, looking at the roadside while we pass it by. We search for meaning and those examples which may instruct us regarding a better way to travel. In the end, we do not pay them heed; they are tossed aside as if there was no road at all. All we concentrate on is the finish line, so we don't see how we are to get where we are supposed to be going. We forget our life lessons come from our journey, not the destination that we invest so much time trying to convince ourselves is real. The highway is always shorter than we imagine it to be.
            It is productive to have goals, to have an end to strive towards. Human beings tend to use this as an excuse to ignore the pain, the horror life can bring while we journey. Sometimes living can make dying look easy. Most people do not realize that should we find the end of it, then it would be the end of us. Your death should not define you, the way you lived should. This is what will matter in the end. It is the path you have walked upon that will determine how you got where you are. On the highway of life, our view of the past is limited to the rear view mirror. You look, but it's already too late. There is no "my way or the highway." Too often, we are so preoccupied with were we are heading that we forget to enjoy the ride. We don't recognize that a journey we take to nowhere starts with a single step, just the same. Lest we forget, that which does not kill you makes you stronger, but that which kills you, most certainly, makes you dead.
            Like warning lines on the path ahead, lessons dictate what we should not do. They do not, however, stop us from doing them. It is inevitable; we cannot do without these mistakes. They are the highway of our character. Without them we take blind turns, not able to see what's coming and with no way to prepare. What we take from our journey provides us with the qualities needed to endure the journey, to face oncoming traffic and increase our locomotion.  Life is really just one big roadtrip. The way we travel becomes our life. It is our life. The journey, it will define us.
            Unless we stay in constant motion, we become stagnant, quite lost. We start to believe there is nowhere to go. We don’t take the time to see the bigger picture because where we are is all we are capable of understanding. In our hubris, we assume our travels are the only direction that should be followed. People waste their entire life on this dead end. They become hijacked, taken away because they disregarded caution. They cannot see that everyone is travelling down the very same path. We are shaped by culture, perspective and experience so the road appears different for everyone, but it is all one and the same. Thinking your way is the only way simply means you have forgotten the highway that we all travel on.
            We all journey this road by different modes of transportation, taking what we think is the most certain way to get where we are going. These fashions are an artificial representation of the world from a privileged view. The world can be stark and real, almost hostile, but regardless of the complexities faced, it will be this trip along the way that holds the greatest sentiment. After all, the unexamined life is not worth living. This is the forgotten highway to which I refer. We are not able to produce a greater, clearer understanding of our true purpose in life unless we take the time to analyze and contemplate our life. The purpose of all this is to learn, to recognize the lessons that our journey has brought us, in order to produce spiritual and personal growth. Unless one becomes mindful of this condition, we may be doomed to unconscious repetition. If you don't know where you have been, you are destined to walk that way again.

 "Longer days,
More time to sit and watch the pendulum sway.
In quiet rage I'm staring at this empty notebook page.
In times like these you feel like you are done with feeling,
You feel you want to stop the pain from healing
Because you feel like you're the only one,
Who's ever felt this way."
(End of May, Michael Bublé 2010)

            We are the sum of our experiences. It goes without saying, unless we pay attention to the wisdom we picked up from the road, we walk right off the highway and end up in the ditch. Our experiences don't just shape us, they create us and they lead us.  Only you, however, can define yourself. What you listen to determines who you will be. Only you can ascertain the essential qualities within yourself, taking what you must from each experience and discarding the rest. You are what you let yourself be. Choosing to let your experiences affect you is your option, but how you see yourself is the result. Our actions influence us, they form us. What you take from each experience ensures the most fundamental qualities of your being.  When examining yourself, don't take the low and easy road and make sure that you are being thorough. 
            Life isn't just about the journey, it is the journey. Experience can strand the traveller if focus is only on the lesson and not its application. I for one cannot imagine anything worse than dying knowing I had never lived. Carry on no matter what you see ahead of you. Fight the future with all your might. Don't expect life to do your work for you. Things do not change; we change. If things get too much, lighten your load and keep on going. You have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. The highway ahead of us is uncertain at best. All we can do is lessen our expectations of what tomorrow will bring and concentrate on making now, today, what we want it to be. Don't just consider the things you wish you had done, or could do; do them while you still can. We must consciously, adamantly seize the day.
            There is a rhythm to living, an euphony that flows through all things. Life is an ebb and flow, consequence and mistake; life is change. It is in constant flux, all action and reaction, trial and error to the very end. Change is the very tarmac of the road you stand upon. Like a dune on the cape, it shifts, recreated by the syncopation of what has been. At any second, it may be blown away. The winds of change usually bring fear. It may be fear of losing, it may be fear of gaining, but it is fear nonetheless. It is because things are the way that they are that things never stay the way that they are. Dread and trepidation lose their power over us when we realize that for everything we miss out on in life, we gain something different. Just as with everything we end up gaining, we lose something also. It's a catch-22, a metaphor for trading. Unless we transform, we too may be gone with the wind. All you have to do is choose which road you take.

'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.'
(The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost 1915)

            Sometimes, you just have to get in your car and drive. If you try to get away, attempting to escape your past, you may end up sacrificing any joy that might come in the future. We do not realize the only way to view the present is by allowing it to become the past, not that you have a choice. There is no escape. Without this transfer, we would have no vantage point by which to measure what will be. We must move on into it and travel many moonless nights and days filled with grey. When moving forward in our thinking, trying to leave what is done behind us, we also forfeit the good things that we've known, the right choices we have made. These are as much a part of who we are as any damage we may have incurred along the way. Where you have been can get you to where you are going. Unfortunately, we speed so fast over hill and dale that we miss all the scenery. Life is not this type of joyride.
            Life sometimes hurts to remember. The memory association you have with the pain can almost kill you with its fury, especially when it centers on someone who has died. It seems easier to just let it all fade away. We think it will make us stronger. We believe the love must die, that this is the only way we will survive the storms of loss and suffering. Love only dies if you let it. It's simpler for some to let go of the dead, and forget, than it is to carry on with them and remember. It takes a stronger person to keep the memory of someone who has died alive within, continuing the same relationship with them though once removed. Whether we like it or not, the dead are as much a part of the highway that we travel on as anything else we have known.       
            Sometimes we are required to speak for them by proxy. Often, we are forced to do so. We do not even wait for people to die anymore, treating the aged like they are standing in line at the cemetery, fast worm food. Simply approaching death in a youth-oriented society means invisibility. We choose not see them because they act as a mirror to our own mortality. Had it not been for their walkabout, we would not have gotten to where we are as a civilization. When you cast something aside, you waste opportunities to learn and the wisdom those lessons contain. Wisdom doesn't just appear, it always requires an outside source. When we outsource, we are cultivated, in a sense. Growth is a journey of patience and polish while lack of proper attention will wither away such a promising life. You have to measure and discern what shapes you. Without a firm foundation, you cannot grow strong. You need food for your soul.
            Like a little fish, we swim around a great big sea looking for the ocean. We do not find what we look for because we refuse to recognize those things that we do not know. If we knew it to begin with, we would not be looking for it. We drive so fast we miss all the road signs, not watching the way up ahead. As we stare out our rear view mirror, suddenly we hit a bad patch and go off the road, slamming into a tree.

It would be wise to pay attention. 
"We may shine, we may shatter,
We may be picking up the pieces here on after,
We are fragile, we are human,
We are shaped by the light we let through us,
We break fast, cause we are glass."
(Glass, Thompson Square 2012)

            I think it is admirable to recognize your limitations. If you cannot eat 17 eggrolls, don't order them off the menu. You will get what you pay for. As with mercy, the quality of your weaknesses is not strained. It is easier to stay in the security of your own restrictions than to change and try to make yourself better. We would rather speed off down the road than have to walk it.  We would rather drive past someone who needs assistance than pull over and offer them a hand. We need to recognize the needs of everyone rather than only ourselves. We must learn to feel their pain, to look past their faults or circumstance. We must show them the same mercy we expect for ourselves. Instead of "mercy, mercy me," it should be "mercy, mercy we." This is an incarnation of the divine, intangible proof that there is something, somewhere watching over us. There is no such thing as justice on the highway, and mercy often inflicts death. You have to remember that while there may be no reprieve, there is always this state of clemency.
            Despite this state of mercy, we spend our entire lives denying, running away from our own end. It is not mercy if we fear it. Personally, I would rather deal with the entire death issue now than have to have it in my face later, when I can least afford the reflection. Just looking can shatter the glass. I suppose no matter how we try to avoid it, it is a human thing, a normal function, for us to fear death.  Peace will only find you when you decide whether you want to live life knowing you are dying, or die not having lived. Still, it is often confusing for me that although 95% of people believe the highway doesn't end yet, we are still so afraid of what lies in waiting. We are afraid because we just cannot be sure. After all, mankind tends to use control mechanisms, like hell, to trick the ignorant into towing the line. The truth is we just don't know anything concrete about the place of the damned, no more than we do about the place called heaven. Even though we spend most of our lives in forced descent, we should have figured out from the scenery that there is no highway to hell.  
           Life is suffering. Like an ode to misery, you usually get what you have prepared for yourself. There is an alternative to all this agony, a way to end our suffering. Our own thinking and actions authorize our misery. Since we are shaped by our thoughts, we tend to become what we think. Joy will follow us like a shadow that will not leave, but only when our mind is pure. If we suffer, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We give permission to pain and distress. We have to master our thinking, and our weaknesses, and in so doing, we can control our fear and the power we give to the more negative aspects of life. One measure at a time, we become free. Thinking we can means that we can. This does nothing to stop the actual experience. How you react to that experience is your choice and determines your level of wretchedness.
                    In the still of the night, on this highway often forgotten by others, I catch a glimpse inside my mind and I make believe it might be the dead calling out to me from the place they are now. You can miss someone so deeply that it changes you. Tragically, human beings would rather forget than hurt. They let go, thinking it will save them. Nothing can save us. It is entirely in God's hands who will live and who will die. When someone cries out a fierce goodbye, they are not responsible for their actions. I have to believe there are circumstances only God can know and that He will not overlook such things. People, however, seem to lack any kind of compassion at all for others, in particular those who lose their way and end up so lost. Forgiveness should always be the rule and not the exception. It is so easy for us to judge each other because we forget we must love each other above everything. 
                    This same rule should apply to everything in nature. Of course, we take the world around us for granted when the same right to respect, consideration and safety is merited to all, not just human beings. In our self-absorption, we leave our responsibilities behind us, ignorantly believing, or not caring, that the natural world is intact. How we treat the planet is just as important as how we treat each other. We are callously destroying the path we walk upon. Soon, there will be no highway and we don’t seem to care. We cut off our toes despite our feet. While it seems we have forgotten how harsh the road we have travelled is, it would be harsher still if there was no road at all.

 "Here we stand in the middle
Of what we've come to know
It's a dance, it's a balance
Holding on and letting go
But there is nothing that we can't resolve
When love's at stake
When love's involved
Every road that's traveled
Teaches something new
Every road that's narrow
Pushes us to choose"
(Every Road, Amy Grant 1997)

                    We must make the decision to be aware of the way we have travelled or we will not know where we are. If this life is a highway, ignoring all the bumps in the road as we pass over them can lead to much collateral damage. It matters little whether you realize this or not. Paying attention can direct you to which path is safe for journey.

The road not taken may be the better way.

                    We must examine our journey or we will surely lose our way. Like an endless, vicious cycle we will keep making the same stupid mistakes, over and over, not realizing all we have to do is look in the rear view mirror. We forget our life lessons, the road signs we pass, so we drive right into a construction site. The road block ahead can be avoided simply by shifting in a new direction. You can live by the highway or die by the highway. Either way, you get to drive.

"Shut up and drive
Don't look in the mirror
Turn the radio on
Get out of here."
(Shut up and Drive, Chely Wright 1997)







Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Since the Star

            Almost 30 years had passed since Azariah met with something wonderful. The star in the east had long ago faded into night, never to return. The three great men he met had eventually journeyed back to their homelands. The only shepherds to be found were far outside the gates of Jerusalem. He himself had left the flocks behind and came to the city in search of a better life. Sarah, his wife of 11 years, and his 8 year old son Benjamin waited for him outside the temple every day without fail. He had been lucky enough to get any job, but one at the temple meant long-term security. When he left Bethlehem, fifteen years had passed since the child in that manger. The death of his father had sealed his decision. He would never have imagined this better life, even if he had dreamt it. He knew in his heart that he had been assisted by God, not only on that special night but every day since the star. Azariah was a happy man.
            Passover was quickly approaching. As the town readied for the festivals, Azariah unloaded all sorts of animals for sacrifice at temple. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. Between the normal rituals, and the surrounding revelry, it was as much as Azariah could do to keep to his assigned duties. His clothes, covered with the mess, were a testament to his hard work. During Passover, blood flowed in the streets of Jerusalem. The Roman occupation would do little to help in the aftermath. Cleaning up was not a prestigious position, but financial security and a good home more than compensated for his shame. For 14 years now, Azariah faithfully served his God and His garbage.
            He met Sarah here, the daughter of the man who got him his position. They had played together when they were children, soon to be separated by distance and choices made. Her father Gyb was one of the shepherds the angels had visited that night. Gyb left the town of Bethlehem with his family almost immediately after the events in the fields and at the stable, taking advantage of Melchior's generosity and the caravan heading towards Jerusalem. Caiaphas seemed obliged to his wise friend and placed Gyb in the maintenance department cleaning up after animals. Years later, Azariah called on Gyb in the same manner, once he had relocated to the city. When he was promoted from excrement to blood, he asked Gyb for permission to marry Sarah.  Neither Sarah nor Azariah had ever entertained the idea of marriage and both were late in life when they married and started a family.
            Azariah loved his family. Azariah's family loved him. Where once stood a small blond shepherd boy now stood a strong man, well matured and responsible. His journey had been relatively easy compared to most. The stock of sheep left to him when his father died empowered him through its sale. With enough money to start again, he followed the roads south to the Holy City to begin a new life. Every morning he now shuffled to temple, thankful for the family that he loved so much.
            The path he took past Sha'ar Harachamim, the Gate of Mercy, was unusually busy for a day such as this. No celebration had been planned until later in the week. People were standing all about, crying out to a bearded man, riding on a donkey.
"The prophecy, the prophecy is fulfilled," screamed a woman near to him.
"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you," they chanted, singing in chorus, all the while laying olive, willow and other branches before him as he passed. 

"Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
(Zechariah 9:9, NIV)

            He could not believe his eyes. The very same man who had rode the donkey just a few days before through Sha'ar Harachamim, was now driving out everyone who was trading in the temple square and inside the main entrance. At some distance, he watched silently from a wagon filled with young lambs for the korban Pesakh. Each beast was held waiting for sale as the rite of Passover sacrifice approached. Azariah was unsure what to do. In the same area this man was defiling stood the tables and stalls used for their sale. These stalls had to be filled or he could face the anger of the account manager. Suddenly, the man turned and began to yell, "This is my Father's house," then started turning over the tables of money changers and the dealers in sacrifice. Azariah was stunned. Before the Roman soldiers arrived, the man and his entourage disappeared into the crowds. When those crowds calmed and the excitement was over, Azariah returned to his duties, hurrying to help restore the square to its place of commerce and trade in blood.
            Sarah had heard the news and was waiting for Azariah with their son, just outside the temple later that afternoon when he finished his work. She had worried all day that her husband had somehow been involved in the ruckus at temple. She was relieved to learn he had not been compromised. After they arrived home, they all sat to dinner. Benjamin began to inquire as to this man who had drawn so much attention. Azariah hushed the boy, directing him to his meal, when Sarah interrupted with news of her own. 
"In the market today, there were great rumblings of this man," Sarah added. "They say he may be the Mašíah, come as the liberator against Rome."
"Such talk is treason, Sarah," he said. "You cannot be heard saying such things or the wrath of Rome will fall upon our house. This man is a criminal. If you had seen the damage he waged at the temple today, you would not speak such foolish things."
            Later in the evening, after Benjamin had been sent to bed, the couple went about their nightly chores. Sarah soaked, then washed the filth and blood-drenched clothes her husband brought home with him each day from his duties at the temple. It seemed hard labour for her in attempting to remove the constant staining. It was a futile task. Azariah took his place near the window, peering out into the night sky. He often sat in this chair, searching for his star in the heavens, silently praying for it to reappear. It had once brought him comfort and safety, leading him home through the dark of the desert. This night, the words of Melchior rang loudly in his mind.
            As Azariah approached the stable that night, he was welcomed into the glow that illuminated the manger. The tail of the star had settled there. It was a marvel to see his father and Gyb standing only feet away from three royal men and their procession. All the people from the entire village crowded around to see the baby, all this for a newborn child. His father beckoned him to come forward and Azariah pushed through the people and past the beasts of burden as they lay round in the hay. The brightness of day filled the center of the manger; the glare was much too sharp for eyes having just faced the night. When his father urged him on to the cradle, Azariah stood trembling; he did not know what to make of it all. He was not afraid, but he paused as confusion overcame him.
"He is Immanuel child; God is with us," said a tall Persian man dressed in fine garments and holding a silver jar filled with frankincense.
"But what does that mean?" questioned Azariah.
"He is the saviour, the Mašíah, come to make all men free. Stay your place and bow child, praise God and the newborn King," answered the foreign lord. 
“Hear now, you house of David!
Is it not enough to try the patience of humans?
Will you try the patience of my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:
The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel."
(Isaiah 7:13-14, NIV)

             Before dawn on the morning of the Passover feast, Azariah awoke to loud banging on the door of his home. In spite of his fear that the Romans had come, he opened it. When Gyb rushed in, excited and rather manic, he sighed in relief.  
"Azariah," he almost yelled, "It's Melchior, he is here and I have met with him."
"The king Melchior, the one from that night in Bethlehem?" asked his blond friend, rubbing what was left of any sleep from his eyes. At that moment, two Persian guards entered the dwelling. The commotion had brought Sarah and Benjamin out of the quiet and Sarah held him at the back of the kitchen for safety.
"He wants to see you, Azariah. I told him you were here and he has sent us to retrieve you and bring you to his counsel," claimed the obviously shaken man. Azariah began to dress and called out for Sarah, telling her he that had to go and not to worry.
"Father, may I go with you?" asked the small fair haired child in the corner.
"Benjamin," he replied, "you must stay here with your mother and watch over her. I will try to fetch you both when I have met with Melchior. I most go now and no longer keep my old friend waiting."
           The caravan sat outside the city, near the gate that leads to Gethsemane, just beyond the temple. 30 years had done little to Melchior, but for a few wrinkles in his brow and dashes of grey at his ears. It jutted out from beneath his head cover. Melchior could hardly believe that the man who stood before him was the little shepherd boy who had found his way to the manger that night.  Gyb had seen Melchior leaving the temple by darkness, bidding goodbye to Caiaphas, so he approached his entourage seeking audience. Melchior knew him right away. Every detail of that night had been relived so often that it was now a part of the very being of this wise man. He had come so far, just as before, but this time there was no star to guide this journey.  
"I have come seeking the child," Melchior informed them.
"The child from the Bethlehem?" asked Azariah.
"Yes, his time is near and I have come to witness the fulfillment of that foretold the night the star shone bright and the angels sang."
"We do not know the man the child has become," Azariah said.
"He is here," Melchior revealed. "He is in prison, to be tried today for treason."
            The Persian nobleman had spies in the palace of Herod, spies who had summoned him when news of the man and the prophecy began to spread through the Galileen countryside. The son of Joseph and Mary, who preached of the coming Kingdom of God, was known near and far for his miracles and healings. Melchior's henchmen confirmed he was indeed the child he had waited for. At 27, Melchior had travelled far to pay homage to the child, but now, as he approached his 60th year, travel was slower than it had been before. Melchior had hoped to share in the grown child's ministry, but he had arrived too late. Consulting with Caiaphas had done nothing to change their minds.
"I had forgotten how harsh the road I once travelled to see the babe was," he told the two men. "Harsher still to find there is nothing I can do for him now." Azariah could not believe his ears. The child who had filled his dreams for all these years was here in Jerusalem, captive at the Praetorium.
            Melchior arranged for the two men to join him that day, replacing them for work detail with his own men, at the permission of Caiaphas. They made their way through the gate, past the temple and into the heart of the Holy City. With the sunlight came the crowds, all heading towards the house of Pilate, the praefectus of Judaea. The governor resided close to the temple and the hoards of people grew dense as they approached the area. The steps of the judgment hall were thick with crowds. They lingered nervously about, like wolves before a frenzy. The men all took a place near the eastern stairs, at the open courtyard where they could attend to the trial unabated. Just then, a man was led away to be scourged, and the people who surrounded the gabbatha, on the platform out front of the palace, began to cheer. Azariah did not get to see his face.

"Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(Isaiah 53:4-6, NIV)

            Azariah stood breathless. It was impossible. The very same man, who had ridden the donkey through Sha'ar Harachamim and disturbed the temple merchants, was now being strung up before him in the courtyard, subjected to the scourge of 39 lashes. Azariah could not believe his eyes. With each lash of the knotted whip, the man said nothing, he did not cry out for mercy. When they brought him to the courtyard from the inner sanctum, Azariah saw his face and knew him instantly.
"This cannot be the child fully grown," he said. "This man is a criminal, the one who attacked the money changers."
"He is the child, Azariah," Melchior said softly. "Today, that which the angels foretold will come to be. Through his suffering we all will be free."
            When the guards had brought the man back to Pilate, he went out on the front steps of the Praetorium, where his judgment seat had been placed, and called together the Sanhedrists and the chief priests. Melchior dropped his head when Caiaphas entered. The man had been wrapped in red cloth and was holding a staff in his right hand. On his head they had placed a ring of thorns, like a crown, which clearly pierced the skin all about the man's brow. There was so much blood that Azariah pictured him as if like one of the sheep he sent to slaughter as sacrifice. Slowly the man turned his head and their eyes met just briefly. His eyes, those magical eyes, he thought. They were the very same ones which had filled Azariah with peace and gladness, staring up from the cradle in the glow of that manger.  He was instantly filled with the same wonder that the star had given him that night so many years ago. In the midst of all that pain, covered in all that blood and suffering, the man seemed to smile at him. Azariah knew, and, despite all he had seen, he recognized that this was the child now fully grown and standing before the crowds of his own people. Pilate stood and raised his right arm to silence the crowd.
"What would you have me do?"

"Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” rang through the air in a great uproar.
Pilate turned and walked to his judgment seat, dipped his hands into a gold basin and proceeded to wash them. He dried each off with a towel presented by his attendant. He walked over to the bearded man, and then a solider grabbed the man's hair, raising his bloody head. Pilate then spoke to him.
"You have been convicted by acclamation," he said. "Let them take him and crucify him, but I find no fault in him."
            The soldiers, who had flogged him, stripped him of his royal robe and led him into the crowds. The people cheered and screamed, all in one accord. They took the man down towards Herod's palace and out of the city to the place of skulls, near the old cemetery on the outskirts of town. Azariah stood trembling; any peace the man had delivered to him was lost in a swarm of commotion. Melchior, Gyb and the entourage turned away. They did not wish to join the procession through the upper city and out into such desolation. Azariah followed just as he had done with the star over Bethlehem.  He did not summon Sarah or his boy, as he had promised, well knowing the fate that laid waiting for this man outside the city walls.
            After the act, as he walked home, the rain fell hard and lightning clashed against the clouds. He could not tell his tears from the raindrops, which began to fall when the man finally died, hung on the wood like some calf over a fiery spit. He entered his home, kissed his wife and son and revealed to them the horror this day had brought. Sarah sat listening. She had heard the story of that wonderful night so many times she knew it by heart. She understood that her husband's dream had died with the man. She knew he had never forgotten the path that he once followed from the dark. She hoped this would not break him. When he had finished, they all sat in silence, until Sarah broke the nothingness. "Azariah," she questioned. "What was his name?"







Monday, December 3, 2012

The Littlest Shepherd

            Azariah was not like the other children. He was smaller, much frailer. For all his 12 years, he stood lesser than most. His hair was not dark or curly, rather, it glimmered with lighter tones and hung straight and fair. Most children in Bethlehem lay sleeping this early winter night, but Azariah stood watch with his father over sheep.
            His father and the men who worked with him had been delayed in arriving home. For almost three weeks, they had been detained because of the census. The colder desert nights had come and the journey from Hebron had been dank and unforgiving. His beaten clothes, not fit for the winds of a Palestine winter, did little to bring much needed warmth. They had arrived back near Bethlehem and planned to stay in the fields until morning when the market opened. His father, a shepherd his entire life, had brought Azariah on this travelling, in hopes of building character in the boy. When he married Azariah’s mother, a Hebrew girl from the Roman territories, he did not expect her death in childbirth, nor did he anticipate that his only son would bring such disappointment and weakness. The harsh life of a shepherd was no place for someone like his son, and with no one to watch over him, he was forced to carry this reminder of God’s judgment upon him throughout the Palestine countryside.
            When the light appeared in the sky, no one was sure what to make of it. When the brightness appeared above them, they were so afraid. A few sheep, startled by the quick and the unknown brilliance, fled to safety. Azariah wanted to stay and see this marvel which magically appeared in the night sky, but his father sent him out in the dark to find the flock which had abandoned them to the same night.
            As Azariah walked into the desert, he did not hear the voices of angels heralding the good news. He did not see the celestial glow from the host which appeared to his father and the other shepherds.  He did not take his father’s hand and follow into the town waiting from the distance. He just kept walking and calling and praying he could show his father that he was strong enough and brave enough.
            Only a few sheep had strayed from the flock, but Herod’s taxes and the expense of traveling for the census meant all were precious and they could not afford to lose even one. As he walked, he thought of the mother he had never met and the taunting of other children. Life was not fun for Azariah. Between a disapproving father and the shame of his frailty, he held little in good regard. In temple, he sat and listened to the tales of Moses and David and Isaiah, but it was the words of the other children which stained him with feelings of worthlessness and sorrow. He too, just like his father, held bitterness and contempt for those whom had made his life almost not worth living. Such ridicule and endless dampening stole the innocent heart and childlike ways of this little blond boy from Bethlehem.
            He grew colder and the desolation of the desert did little to quell his fear and hesitation. He had always preferred being alone, but this night he yearned for the hands of his father, the safety of a greater place. Suddenly, he heard it. The subtle noise of beast was almost invisible, cloaked behind wind and sand and bitter sting. There, alongside an outcropping of rocks, he found the seven sheep that had strayed. Azariah sat down beside them and started to shake. The night had grown darker and colder and met the chill of his heart as he cursed his father for sending him into the desert to die.
            When the sheep laid down beside him in the sand, he could not believe his eyes. He had never seen such a thing. Azariah remembered what to do. How many times had his father told him to find warmth with each other or the animals, if ever lost in the desert come night? How many times did his father instruct him to stay huddled only until the warmth returned?

“Never sleep on the desert floor,” Azariah recalled.
“You will drown in the sand.” 

             Azariah could feel the heat returning to his skin, as he lay between two ewes and the sun-baked glow of the desert floor. Staring out into the endless sea of ebony, he searched his mind for a way to get back home. Although he had not ventured beyond the dunes, he could not find his way. He raised his head and called out into the deep black. There was no reply, no response. Not even an echo bounced back from the hills which shadowed his path to safety. There was no moon to light his way. No fire in the distance to call him as a beacon. He turned over, praying for a new perspective.
            It did not appear, but it was not there mere moments before. It filled his eyes with daylight. It was the same brilliance which had scared the sheep into running. He rose up and greeted salvation. The star shone brighter than any other he had ever seen. Its glow reached across the skyline like beams of blue and bright. It was brilliant and full, and for Azariah, it was hope. The dunes glistened with starshine and gave way through the night. The tail of the star seemed to float in the heavens until it focused on one spot. Azariah knew, he just knew.
            He quickly rounded the sheep and headed into the light. He started out, then he wandered toward the shine, for the star in the sky led his way. When he got back to the pens, he could not find his father. He could not find anyone or anything but a fenced-in mob of white cotton herded into capture. He added his seven blankets into the cage and wandered into the tail of the star. The late night gave little rescue to the answers Azariah searched for. No townsfolk could he question. He looked up and checked the radiance of the beam. It was still with him even though he was home. The star of wonder flickered then to pinpoint, it managed his way.

‘Are you far away from home
This dark and lonely night
Tell me what best would help
To ease your mind
Someone to give
Direction for this unfamiliar road
Or one who says, "Follow me and
I will lead you home."
(Christmas Lullaby, Amy Grant / 1999)

            When Azariah was older and had a child of his own, he would sit his son down and tell him the tale of the littlest Shepherd. We would tell him of the cold desert night and how the sheep gave warmth to see him through. He would tell them of the kings and the stable and the things he saw that night. Most of all, he would tell them of his star and the wonder of how it led him home.


The Little Shepherd
(Originally Posted 12-21-2010)

Meaning of Azariah