Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Little Shepherd--A Christmas story for children

VIII. Jesse at Bethlehem

The hills seemed to fall away beneath him, little more than the smooth surface of the sea. He ran when he could, slowed to get his breath when he had to, climbed the hills like a goat, and streamed down the other side as if he were aboard a wave, the wind at his back.

In his mind, he’d hidden away the map his brother had drawn in the sand, so he knew exactly where to go.

When he arrived, he slipped his arms out of his rucksack, wondering how one entered the palace of a king, even if the palace was a stable. The doors were closed. Was he supposed to knock? Should he remove his sandals?

He licked his hand and pushed back the hair from his face, tried to look clean, not just a lowly shepherd boy from the hills. There he stood, at the door, listening for anything, even the cry of this baby, the King. Nothing. No sound at all.

He looked around. Bethlehem was moving along as if nothing at all had happened, merchants already opening their shops, mothers milling about choosing what they needed for the day. There were children playing behind him in the streets, and old men in gray beards sat on benches, leaning on their canes, pointing into the hills from which he’d come.

He knocked on the loose barn door, first politely, then with the heel of his hand. “Bang, bang, bang”—the pounding couldn’t have been mistaken. He waited.

His brother’s face had changed after what he’d seen in the stable. He himself had seen the angels, heard them, their voices still ringing—“Be not afraid,” they chanted, over and over, so he lifted the latch slowly, an inch or so, then waited.

Still no sound from within. He stood there, the door partially opened, a long shaft of light from the crack he’d made running along the floor. No one there. He opened the door wider and light fell in all around and behind him. Nothing but a manger in the very center of the stable, an empty manger. No one was there.

Up from the emptiness of his heart just then flowed something so huge he couldn’t breathe, a murky cloud of sadness came up and squeezed and squeezed until he knew the tears were wrung from his own broken heart. No child who’d become a mother. No angels. No king. No savior. The manger stood alone in the center of the stable, clean and bright in the broad wave of light from the door outside.

“He is not here, but he is not gone,” a voice said, a voice from the silhouette at the door behind him. “Don’t be afraid—he is safe, he is a child, and he is a king. But he is not here.”

“Where have they taken him?” Jesse said quickly, running back toward the door. “My brother sent me here to see the baby, to see the King.”

Against the bright sunlight, the man’s face was guarded and dark. But in a moment, in a flash that came to him like a vision, Jesse knew the man in the bandanna was back. He watched as the stranger took a guarded look up and down the streets outside, then came in and shut the door behind him. The cracks between the slats ran in long lines of sunlight through the stable and over his body.

“You were with me last night,” Jesse said. “You’re not a dream, are you? You were beside me, all the time.”

The man nodded. “I wish you could have seen him,” the stranger told him. “But when King Herod heard of him, his parents thought it best to leave—they’ve gone to Egypt.”

“To Egypt?” Such a thing seemed impossible.

“He is still the King,” the man said. “Fear not.”

“But I wanted to see him—I wanted to see the baby.”

“There will be time,” the man said.

“My brother said it was the best thing he’d ever seen.”

“You will too,” the stranger told him. “I know you will.”

“Not here?”

“Not here, but instead in all his glory. He will return, Jesse,” the man in the bandanna said. “You will see him yourself—I know you will. He will return.”

“Not as a baby.”

“Not as a baby, but never as anything less than King.” He took a deep breath, put a hand out over Jesse’s shoulder. “No go back to the hills—go back to the sheep.”

Still, Jesse had to wipe back tears. “I don’t want to go back—I want to see the King,” Jesse told him. “I want to serve the king.”

“The sheep are his, my son,” the stranger said. “The sheep you love belong to the King. You will serve him as you serve them—as you did last night. When you keep them from wolves and help them mend their broken hearts, you love them, just as he does. They are his, you know.”

Then he bent down and looked into Jesse’s face, his hand still on his shoulder. “You want to know a secret?” he said. “You promise to tell no one, ever, Jesse, and I will tell you something that only you will know.” He used his thumb to wipe back little Jesse’s tears.

“About the baby?” Jesse said.

The stranger nodded. “I tell you the truth, and you will know yourself that it is the truth when, someday in the future, you hear it yourself—the words the King will speak from the his own lips.”

Jesse’s breath was coming in windy gusts. “What is it?” he said through his tears.

“Someday the King will tell the world that he is the good shepherd,” the man told him. “Believe it! The King himself will say he is what you are, what you showed yourself to be just last night when you cared for his sheep. He will say it and you will know.”

“And how will I hear it?” Jesse said.

“You will hear him here,” he said, pointing at his ear, “and here too,” he said, pointing then to his heart.

“And I will see him?”

“Face to face, I swear.” He took his hand off Jesse’s shoulder. “And now it’s time for you to go back to the hills, to the sheep—you hear me? There will be a sign, too. It’s time for you to be what the King wants you to be—a good shepherd.”

“There will be a sign?” Jesse asked.

The man in the bandanna nodded.

“You’re an angel, aren’t you?” Jesse said. “You’re one of those who came to us on the hill, out of the darkness—you’re one of those who sang. You’re one of those who told us to go to the city of David for Christ, the Lord?”

Just like that, the stranger was gone, slipping out somehow, disappearing into the half-darkness of the empty stable.

The hills had never seemed to steep, so high when Jesse returned. He would find it difficult to tell his brother Ezra that no baby lay in the stable, that the King had been stolen away because King Herod wanted to find him. He wished he’d seen the King.

The sun stood up above the hills like a huge, golden shepherd, but the air was cool and light, and while the hike went slowly, he kept hearing again the promises of that angel, the angel who’d brought him through the night, kept hearing those promises, in chorus, just as he’d heard them—as they’d all heard them—when the heavens threw back its curtain of darkness and the heavenly hosts had appeared, glorifying God the glorious night before.

The rucksack was heavy, as if he carried a yearling over his shoulder. He remembered hardly anything of the trip to Bethlehem, but coming back, following the path his brother and friends had taken up the slopes and down seemed drudgery until finally, just a hill away, finally their own flocks began to appear.

And then he saw Boaz, the old grandpa ram who’d awakened him last night. Just as if nothing had happened at all, Boaz started out toward him, gathered his gait into a run, then came galloping down the side of the hill straight toward him, his face up into the wind, and didn’t stop for a moment, but ran right into him, knocking Jesse down the way he loved to do, then stood there beside him, grinning. He was back to his old tricks.

And just at that moment, he saw there beside Boaz that mother who’d lost her lamb last night, the ewe who’d wanted so much to die. Right there with Boaz was the ewe he himself he had tried to comfort, to keep alive.

She was. She’d made it. She was alive. There she stood beside Boaz.

“There will be a sign,” that angel had told him.

When Jesse looked into the eyes of that mom, he knew she was the sign the angel promised because it wasn’t a dream—nothing that happened last night was a dream. That he’d see the King himself was true too. He would hear him speak, and hear him say, the King—and this was his own special secret—that he was, like Jesse, the good shepherd.

Thanks be to God, he told himself. Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that beautiful story. Come quickly, King of Kings .... !