Thursday, December 30, 2010

Semi-Great Expectations. . .My New Year's Revolutions

It's a new year.  It's coming, and it cannot be stopped.   It is approaching more rapidly now.  In the early months of 2010, it seemed a long way off--moving slowly but surely.  Like when I move from the Christmas dinner table to the nearest recliner; I know I will get there, I just don't know how long it will take.  But since the end of October, the approaching new year seems to have picked up speed.  And now, here it is.

I know the new year is here because all of my wall calendars are out of pages.  Also, my wife is already reminding me not to write "2010" on any checks I write after December 31st.  I really should watch that, because it's much harder to scribble a "1" over a "0" than it is some other numbers, say a "7", no matter how hard you press, how many times you repeat the stroke, or how thick you try and make it.

I can also tell the new year is here because I'm already beginning to feel guilty.  This is because I have yet to make my new year's resolutions.  Oh, wait--I forgot, I don't call them "resolutions" anymore.  Rarely does anything that I have resolved to do in the coming year get resolved.  So now I just say "I'm setting goals."  That way, if nothing gets resolved in the coming year, I can just say, "Well, my expectations were way too high!  I must learn to set more attainable goals." 

Anyway, this is another way I know it's a new year: I haven't set my goals for the coming year.  And now I'm beginning to feel guilty about it.    This means I am already behind on not attaining my goals.  At this pace, it's going to be spring before I get my goals set, and, what--September or October before I admit that I can't attain the goals I set for this year, because my expectations were too great.  And of course, by then, the next new year is approaching at warp speed, and I'll have to start concentrating on goals for the next new year.  I swear, it never ends.

Setting goals.  Making resolutions.  Both of those terms really sound as though a person is making giant strides toward self-improvement, don't they?  I should just call it what it is: Another Chance to Set Unrealistic Goals Which I Know I Will Never Be Able to Attain but Which I Will Set Anyway, and Then When I Fail to Attain Those Unrealistic Goals Within the Unrealistic Time Period of One Year, I Will Feel Guilty, But I Will Set Them Anyway Because I Will Also Feel Guilty If I Do Not Set Some Goals for the New Year.  That's a little cumbersome to write, and even more ponderous to read, however.  Maybe I'll find a better way of saying it, but for now, I'll just call it Setting Goals.  Hey, wait...I just had an idea!  Let me write that down. . .Find a better way of saying it.  That's now one of my goals for 2011.

When I'm setting my goals, I look back at the previous year and take inventory.  As I've already mentioned, rarely can I attain every goal set down in one year.  Sometimes, you just have to scratch some of the tougher ones off the list and forget about them.  Those would be things like, "Lose weight."  "Get taller."  But then, sometimes previous year goals can carry over.  This makes your job of setting new goals much easier!  Here are a few of my carry-over goals from last year, which I will be including in my list for this year.

1. Take a trip to Alaska on one of those cruises hosted by a local television celebrity and their lovely spouse
2. Beat my brothers-in-law at golf
3. Beat anyone at golf
4. Save enough money to pay someone to let me beat them at golf
5. Discover a way to make health food taste like a medium done, thick, juicy steak
6. Eat more health food
7. Arrange to put the Slap-Chop guy, the Progressive girl, and the "stars" from all local car dealer television ads in one room and see who can out-annoy the others. . . . .to death. . .like a cage match
8. Become one of those people who do nothing but write letters to the editor of the local newspaper
9. Become more tolerant of bad TV commercials and people who do nothing but write letters to the editor of the local newspaper.
10. Finish last year's Christmas shopping by February.  Okay March.

There!  Wow, I feel better already!  I'm well on my way to getting my goals set for 2011!  All things considered, I expect a great 2011.  You know, this is amazing, but writing this has been a catharsis for me.

Wait, I have to write that down. . .Look up 'catharis' and learn definition. 

I'd better stop before my list gets too long.  Then I wouldn't be able to attain any of my goals.  And I'm really looking forward to that cage match.  My money's on Flo.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Shepherd's Story

Night to Day/Day to Night
By Keith Wilson

Three days ago I stood on a hillside just outside the walls of Jerusalem and watched while midday turned to night.  On that day, for almost 3 full hours, the sun quite miraculously ceased to shine, covering the region with a blanket of darkness like doom itself.

As I stood on that hillside, which they call Golgotha, tears made stained paths through the dust that covered my face.  At that moment, I thought of another such miracle I had witnessed some thirty-three years earlier.  On that occasion, I had been standing on another hillside, near the foothills of Shefalah.  Then, I had seen the night become day.

My name is Jareth.  In those days, I was a boy of thirteen.  I was, as I am still, a shepherd; like my brothers, and my father, and his father before him.   On that night our flock was sharing grazing land with the flock of my father’s brother–as well as the flock belonging to a family from north of the old city of Hebron.  Together, our sum was twenty-two: myself and my five brothers, my father’s brother and his seven sons, and from the other family the father and his seven sons.

My father was no longer able to navigate the rocky hills because of his age and ill health.  So, the burden of responsibility for our own flock of dependent sheep rested on the shoulders of my eldest brother, Zeth.

How I loved my brothers–Zeth in particular, for it was he who taught me the writings of the Old Ones when my father was no longer able to speak clearly.  I would try with all that was within me to speak as Zeth spoke, to mimic his actions–event try to duplicate his manner of walking.  Zeth made light of my attempts to be like him, but I didn’t mind.

My father–and later, Zeth–had told me of the coming of the Anointed One...The Messiah.  The Gentiles called him “the Christ.”  However he was called prior to his coming, he was, we believed, to be the living Son of God. 

As Jews, our family was but a few of our own who actually believed that the God of Abraham would deliver his son in the form of a man.  More than even that, we–again among the few of our faith–believed that the coming of the Messiah would occur within our lifetime!

That night, the air was very still.  The sky was clear of clouds and deeper blue than the Great Sea itself.  The stars shone in their fullness and the moon cast just enough light so that I could just make out the silhouettes of the resting flock. 

Each of the tending families took watch over their respective flocks.  And at this time of night, each sent their two youngest.  While my brothers and older cousins rested in the hollows of the rock outcroppings, I and my uncle’s youngest son tended the sheep.

My biggest chore was staying awake during these hours.  Most of the sheep slept, nestled near the big overhanging rocks where the older ones were sleeping.  I succumbed to a yawn as I pulled the sheep’s wool tunic tighter around my neck against the night chill.

It was my cousin who saw it first.

“Jareth!” He called excitedly from his station farther down the hill.  “Do you see it?”

I tried to see where his silhouetted arm was pointing.  “What is it?” I asked, keeping my voice low so as not to awaken the older ones unnecessarily.

“There!” He shouted loudly now.  “There, to the east, look!”

I saw it now.

At first, I thought a star was surely descending upon us.  It was a bright white light, moving slowly toward us until it illuminated the hillside and a portion of the field below.  The sheep were startled and began to move about, huddling and bumping against one another.  The men were awake now, standing and staring at the light, which was growing closer now. 

I felt as though I was paralyzed.  I wanted to yell–to scream, but no sound would come from my wide-opened mouth.  The men began shouting at each other from all directions.

“What is it?”
“I don’t know!”
“What can this mean?”
“Is this our death?”
“The sheep!  Quickly, gather your sheep!”

Then I heard Zeth’s voice above all others.  “All of you stand quiet!”   The authority in his voice calmed the others.

My eyes remained fixed on the bright light, which was now very near us, glowing a blue-white. 

Suddenly, a form began to take shape in the center of the light.  It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen!  It was wearing a long white gown that billowed in folds as if blown by some powerful wind as yet unfelt by us.

When the center of the light seemed to be just above our heads, a voice spoke.  The voice came from the gowned figure.  And I thought it was the most beautiful sound ever!

“Do not be afraid...I bring you good news!  News of great joy, which will be for all people!”

When the voice spoke, the fear subsided in us all.  Even the sheep were at ease now.  Again I heard Zeth’s voice, this time in an awe-inspired whisper.  “It is an angel of the Lord our God!”  He said, his voice trembling with excitement.

“Today, this day, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. . .He is Christ the Lord!”

I felt a hand on my shoulder, but could not turn my eyes from the angel in the light to see who it was.

“The old prophets were right, just as father said!”  I heard Zeth whisper into my ear.  I could hear the smile in his voice.

Again the angel spoke.  “This will be a sign to you: you will find the baby wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger.”

When the angel had finished speaking, the night sky seemed to part like a great veil.  Slowly the darkness was replaced by a host of lights, similar to the messenger above us.  Angels!  Thousands and thousands of angels!  As far as the eyes could see, the angels appeared, their light shining as bright as noon-day!

I felt Zeth’s grip tighten on my shoulder.  “Jareth,” he whispered, his voice breaking with emotion.  “We are witnesses to the glory of the Lord!”

I drew in a long breath through my still-opened mouth as I gazed at this holy presentation.  With Zeth standing beside me, his strong hand on my shoulder, I tried again to speak but still no sound would leave my throat.

Suddenly, there was a great rushing sound.  A sound like a rapidly approaching rainstorm, but louder.  It was a sound like the longest pealing of thunder ever.  Then, a gust of wind struck us with enough force to put us all off balance!  The odd thing about that sudden burst of wind was that–it was warm.  Like the air that would come from the clay oven when my mother removed the baked bread.

I was finally able to move.  I turned to my brother.  I wanted to ask Zeth what it all meant.  But when I looked at his face, I saw tears.  Still looking at the miracle in the sky, his arms encircled me and drew me to his chest.  “My young brother,” he said in a barely audible voice, “We are standing in the presence of God!”

When I turned back to view this heavenly host, I heard them begin praising God.  Their song was beautiful!  I remember their words to this day.  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men on whom his favor rests!”

More quickly than they had appeared, the host of angels left us and returned to the heavens.  The first messenger angel smiled upon us before joining the hosts in their retreat.

Zeth released me and walked three steps in front of me, now staring at the once again dark sky.  I stumbled over a rock as I moved up a step behind him.  I reached out and took hold of his tunic.  “Zeth, what does it mean?”

He looked down at me, then back to the sky, and once again back to my questioning eyes.

“What it means, young brother, is that we must go to Bethlehem, the town of David, to find the Messiah–the promised one!”

“Does God’s favor rest on us?” I asked, moving closer to Zeth, looking up at the sky again, as he was.

“Yes.  Yes, I feel it must be so!”  Zeth finally answered, “Else we would not have been witnesses to this thing!”

“The Messiah?  Resting in a feeding trough for cattle?”  The question came from the father of the other family.  “That hardly seems a fitting bed for the so-called ‘Living Son of God’!”

“Did you not witness the word of the Lord here, Na-mal?” Zeth asked the man.

“I’m not certain what I witnessed.”  The elder man answered, moving up the hillside toward us.  “It just does not seem possible, young one.”

Na-mal stood beside Zeth and looked down the hillside past the valley.  “What will you do, Zeth?”

“I and my eldest brothers will go to Bethlehem and find the baby.  We will leave Jareth here to tend our flock, along with my uncle and his sons.

When I heard this, I could not stop myself.  I lunged forward, grasping at Zeth’s arm.  “Zeth please!  I must be allowed to go with you!  I must see the one you and father have told me about!  Please, Zeth. . .I must see our Messiah!”

Zeth looked down at me.  He must have seen the longing in my eyes.  He leaned forward so that his eyes were level with mine, his hands on his knees.  “It will be a difficult journey, Jareth.”

“I am willing, Zeth–and strong enough!”

“As are we, cousin.”  My eldest cousin spoke.  “We will go as well.  Your young brother is right.  We must.”

My uncle took quick steps and joined us on the dark hillside.  “That is at it should be, Zeth.  I will stay, along with my youngest, to watch after our flocks.”  He placed his hand on Zeth’s shoulder.  “You must leave at the first sign of day. . .Or–I should say, the next sign of day, for we have just witnessed the first, have we not?”  He smiled and looked around at our group for affirmation.  His face once again took a serious tone.  “Come morning, I will send my youngest to inform your father as to what has happened here.”  He smiled again.  “He will be pleased, Zeth.”   

Zeth smiled at me, and then my uncle.  “He will be praising God, and praying for our safety guidance, Uncle.”  He reached out and locked forearms with my uncle in a traditional handshake of brotherhood.

“Look!  There in the sky to the east!”  My brother Elam shouted.

All our heads whirled in unison, first in the direction of Elam’s voice and then to where he pointed.                                   
There, low in the sky, was a star shining brighter than all the rest.  The star had many points of light radiating from its center.  The ray at the lowest point seemed to stretch to the earth itself.

“Is the star not in the direction of the town of David?”  Elam asked.

“It is indeed.”  My uncle answered.

“It is yet another sign from our Lord, for as Elam has noted, the star directs all who see it to the birthplace of the Messiah!”  Zeth said.

“I feel it is even more than that.” My uncle whispered.  “It is an indication of hope for is an indication of a new beginning, as the angel said ‘for all people!’”

Our journey was three days and nights.  We arrived in Bethlehem two hours past the setting of the sun.  Zeth inquired of several innkeepers as to the whereabouts of the child.  None seemed to know.

The town of David was bulging with people of the region, there to enter their names on the census and to pay their taxes to the Roman government.  We struggled through the crowded streets to yet another inn.  Zeth motioned for the rest of us to wait outside as he entered.

I looked about, a bit frightened by the busyness of the crowds and the activity in the streets and alleyways, even at this late hour.  None of my family was accustomed to town life–least of all during the busiest time of the year.  I focused my attention on the front door of the inn.  After a few moments, Zeth came out.  He was smiling.

“That is why the child is in a manger!  There are simply no rooms available in the whole of Bethlehem!”   

He huddled us closer to him as he would do the youngest sheep in the flock.  “This innkeeper had to turn away a man whose wife was very near her time!”  The excitement in his voice caused us all to share in his anticipation.

“What became of the couple?” Elam impatiently asked Zeth for all of us.

“The innkeeper, when he heard of the woman’s condition, showed them to his own stable, so they could at least stay warm.”

“Was the child born then?” One of my cousins asked.

“Yes, according to the innkeeper, the woman gave birth to the baby only a few nights later!”  Zeth answered, his eyes glowing.

“When, Zeth?  When did the woman deliver the child?”  Elam asked, moving closer within our circle outside the inn.

Zeth stood up straight and looked over our heads, as if he wanted to gain the attention of all in the streets so that they might hear what he had to say.  “The child was born four nights ago.  About five hours after the setting of the sun.”

Elam stepped forward and put his hand on Zeth’s chest.  I could see Elam’s eyes welling with tears.  “Zeth,” he said breathlessly, “that was the exact hour the angels visited us in the field!  We—we have been truly blessed by God to have been told of this wonderful news!”   

“It is true, Elam.  We are blessed!”  Zeth put his hand on my head and smiled at me.  “Jareth, truly God’s favor does rest upon us!”  He gazed heavenward and began praising God loudly.  “All glory and praise be to God in the highest place, for we have found favor in his eyes!”

We all joined in praise for a time, oblivious to the looks from strangers in the streets.

My brother Zor-El spoke excitedly.  “We must go to this stable now and see this holy child in the manger!”

“Come, I will show the way.”  Zeth responded, breaking from our circle and stepping into the narrow alleyway that ran alongside the inn. 

The stable was just behind the inn.  We could see the glow of a fire near the stable and several people standing near. 

There were three men dressed differently than the rest.  They were attired as those from the east. 

“Zeth, who are those men?” I asked my brother as we hurried toward the stable.

“They are Magi, brother.  Men of wisdom from far to the east.  They must have been foretold of the birth of the Messiah!”

Elam took hold of Zeth’s shoulder.  “We do not know the name of the child–nor his mother or father!”

“We will ask.”

We approached the people near the fire.  Zeth strode ahead and inquired of a man who was warming his hands over the inviting blaze.
“We come seeking the child–the Son of the Living God.”

“Who is it that who asks?”  The man questioned, looking carefully first at Zeth then the rest of our group nearby.

“We are shepherds from the hills of Judea to the south.  We were visited by an angel of our Lord and told of the birth of the Messiah.  It is he whom we seek.” 

“Then you are welcome, brother.  I am sorry if I was is because of Herod Antipas.  He fears the birth of the holy one.  We do not know what he may do.”

“May we know the name of the child?” Zeth asked.

“He is called Jesus, as was ordained.”

“And the name of his mother and father?”

“His earthly father is Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth.  He is of the line of David.  The child’s mother is called Mary.

“We must see them now, if we may.”

“You shall, brother.  Come, I will make your presence known to Joseph.”

We followed the man to the manger where the child rested.  He was a beautiful baby, completely at peace in his surroundings amid the straw and the people and the animals who shared the stable space.

Each of our group took our turn viewing the child.  This baby called Jesus—he smiled at me.  I know it to be true!  The Messiah smiled at me! 

We were in awe.  For the second time within the space of just a few days, we were standing in the very presence of God!  I had been witness to the child who would change the course of history forever!

We stayed in Bethlehem that night and the next, camping alongside the others who had come to see the child. When we left the stable early of that morning, and said our goodbyes to Mary and Joseph and the Messiah–this child called Jesus, we could not contain our joy!  We told everyone we saw of the birth of the Messiah!  On the streets of Bethlehem we proclaimed it.  On the road south of town, we stopped travelers to tell them of the good news! 

I have never known such joy as I felt during those days.  I could little understand then that I would one day experience heartache such as I have never known.

Now, some thirty-three years later, here I stand on this barren hill called Golgotha.  It was three days ago, right here on this place of misery, that I watched day turn to night.  Three days ago, in the midst of that darkness, I looked on with sorrow, and in horror, as Jesus was crucified.

Jesus.  The same Messiah I had seen as a newborn babe had been mercilessly nailed to a thick wooden cross and hung there for all to see.  I could scarcely believe what my eyes were seeing.  Nor did I wish to believe it. 

In the third hour of the darkness, I heard Jesus cry out, but I could not understand what he said.  Then he cried out for the last time, and that cry I did understand.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

I saw his broken body slump there on that vile wooden structure–that inhuman implement of death.  I knew Jesus was dead. 

I wept so I could no longer see through the flood of tears.  My heart felt as though it was being torn from my chest.

“How could this be?” I thought aloud.  “The son of the Living God, the King of Kings, my Savior and Lord–the Messiah, left to die!” 

Suddenly, the ground began to shake violently beneath my feet!  The earth was rumbling.  I saw great rocks breaking.  I cried aloud, “It is the Lord our God!  He himself feels the pain, for it is his son who has perished!”

I wandered among the circles of believers following his death on that cross.  Many talked of his returning–of his resurrection from death itself.  Some were afraid for their lives because of their beliefs.  Others, like me, could feel only the pain, and a great sense of loss.

Early this morning, just before the sun rose, I felt the earth move once again.  I was standing with a group of believers when this happened.  We were sharing stories of our various encounters with Jesus.  When the rumblings began, a young woman I do not know shouted loudly, “It is a sign!  The prophecies are being fulfilled!  He is no longer among the dead!”

I felt the hair on my arms and the back of my neck bristling.  Could this be true?  Could it be that the Son of God is returning from a thing as certain as death?

Within the hour, a man came running to our group.  He was breathless and wide-eyed. “Have you heard?” He asked, gasping for air.  “Have you heard the glorious news?”

“What news do you bring, sir?” I asked as we encircled the excited messenger.

“It is true!  It is just as was foretold!” He continued between breaths.

A man from among our group of believers stepped forward and grasped the messenger’s cloak.  “What is true?  Does our Lord live?”  He asked, his voice overflowing with anticipation.

“A woman, her name is Joanna, had gone with others to the tomb of our Lord!  They were bringing spices for the body.  But when they arrived, they were met by an angel of the Lord!”

When I heard of the angelic appearance, I stepped closer to the man.  “What had the angel to say to the women, brother?”

The messenger’s posture took on a change as he looked about our circle.  “The angel asked this question: ‘Why do you look for the living—among the dead?’”

“Then it is true?” Another asked.  “Our Lord has been resurrected?”

“It must be so!” The messenger replied.

“Then—he is risen from the dead?” A young boy asked, struggling to get closer in our circle.

I reached out and held the young boy’s face in my hands.  In his eyes, I saw myself as a young shepherd boy those thirty-three years ago.”

“It is as you said, young one.”  I said, looking into his innocent eyes.  “He has risen.  He has surely risen!”

Just then, I heard a voice calling my name.  I looked about the group to see who had spoken.  No one responded to my inquisitive glance, for they were all still trying to understand the messenger’s words.


This time I heard the voice clearly.  It was coming from within me!

“Jareth, do not be afraid.”   The voice said.  “Jareth, you have found favor in the eyes of God because of your faith.” 

It was then that I realized that what I was hearing was the voice of the Holy Spirit!   I felt peace such as I had never felt, and I could not help but smile.

“Sir?”  The young boy tugged at my tunic.  “Do you really believe?  Do you really believe his has risen?”

A tear fell from my face and splashed in the dust at my feet. “Oh yes, I believe it!  I know it in my heart!  Jesus has risen!”