Saturday, September 29, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

How To Be a Celebrity

* Note: I wasn't able to do a new scene of The Quest for the King this week, invested as I am in the revision and re-issue of my Hidden Kings Trilogy, among other things. So in lieu of that, here's a new piece that I wrote for a devotional column in my local newspaper.

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be a celebrity? Most of us, I think, have dallied with that fancy at some point, imagining what our lives might look like if we were rock stars, movie stars, or all-star athletes. Everyone has a desire to be recognized and appreciated.

Most of us also know, however, that the actual lives of celebrities are probably not as glamorous as they are portrayed to be. The stresses of living in the unforgiving public eye and of keeping up with the pressures and daily decision-making of fame and fortune appear to wear heavily on them. It may in fact be a blessing to not have to bear the burden of being a celebrity in our particular society.

Did you know, though, that there’s a way of being a celebrity that carries with it none of the stress, exhaustion, and disenchantment that so often accompanies the lifestyles of our public idols? The etymology of the word “celebrity” suggests that it refers to “someone who is celebrated.” There’s a verse in the Bible that describes a reality in which we—you and me—are the objects of celebration. It comes in Luke 15:10, where Jesus says, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 

Essentially, this means that when we simply say “yes” to the offer of unending grace in Jesus Christ, there is a celebration that breaks out in heaven because of us. In fact, the Bible says in many different places that you are indeed a “celebrity” in God’s eyes—you are accorded the highest imaginable status simply for being who you are: made in the image of God, the object of God’s thoughts and joy and love. The great 20th-century pastor and writer A. W. Tozer once noted that we often give too much thought on how happy we will be when we finally reach the bliss of heaven; what we should give equal attention to, says Tozer, is God’s joy in having us there. The God of the universe delights in you; he thinks about you; and he longs for you to come to him. And when you respond to the outstretched offer of his love, there is such a party in the courts of the living God that it would put all the fêtes and bashes of Hollywood to shame. It is a far greater thing to be celebrated by the Maker of all things than to be noticed by the passing fancies of this world. So come to Christ, and be the celebrity you were born to be.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pilgrimage Memoir: Leaving Home

"I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees...
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known...
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move..."

- selections from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses"

~ ~ ~

            My pilgrimage began when I said yes. That’s the way all pilgrimages begin, including the most important: our journey into the love and knowledge of God. I said yes to this experience, not because I thought I needed it, but for a host of other reasons: my brother had asked me to come; I liked to travel and see other countries; I would be able to rack up some new birds for my life list; I had an interest in the historical background of the area; and, more than anything else, there was that waning spark of a hope that perhaps, just perhaps, God might someday give me a fresh experience of his grace that would bring long-sought-for peace to my daily battles and ignominious routs in the struggle to walk in holiness.
            My brother (whom, for the purposes of this retelling, we’ll call “Onus”) was the one who invited me. He was going to be one of the tour “hosts”—not an organizer, but a recruiter beforehand and a pastoral figure on the trip itself. I, too, could have signed on as a host, exchanging the duties of service for a lighter price tag, but I wanted to be a pilgrim most of all.
            The journey began for me on a chill April morning in Maine—Tuesday, April 10. It was the feast day of William Law, whose compelling masterpiece, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, I had spent the previous two years in reading. The day was bright but cold, and I left the house early. The plan was to drive to Bangor, leave my vehicle there and take the bus to Logan Airport in Boston, where I would meet the rest of the team and embark together on our overnight flight to Tel Aviv. And that plan played out with perfect, almost boring accuracy.
          I had left a little margin of error in the earliness of my departure, since the vehicle I was trusting to get me to Bangor was a fifteen-year-old gas guzzler someone had given to us out of pity, dubbed “White Kit” by the kids; it was loud and rusty and we seldom trusted it enough to drive it much further than the boundaries of our own town. But it did its part and got me to the Concord Trailways station in Bangor without any issues. Public buses had been my regular form of travel when I was a young man going back and forth between home and college and my beloved’s house in Pennsylvania, so the old routine came back to me with quiet homeliness: the smooth paper of the tickets, the discretion of watching keenly where my suitcase was placed in the undercarriage, and the feeling of settling into an uncomfortable seat and watching the haggard, post-winter forests of Maine quietly slip by the large flat windows.
            The only unusual element was the chattiness of the ticket agent, who, when he heard that my trip would take me to Israel, felt an immediate kinship with me.
            “You must be going for the 70th anniversary, right?”
            “No,” I said. “Just a pilgrimage to the locations in the Gospels.” I knew from a quick mental calculation that it was indeed seventy years from the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, but I hadn’t been aware that the anniversary occurred over the dates of our trip.
            “That’s too bad,” he replied. “It’s next week. It should be a big deal.”
            He went on to explain that he was part of a network of Christians who studied the Jewish heritage of the faith, and he recommended a church group in Jerusalem that produced much of the worship music he was fond of. I scribbled down the address at his behest, but knew that I would not likely go there—not only because our tour schedule would not really allow for such personal excursions, but because if I did have the chance to sneak away on my own, I almost certainly would opt to spend more time in one of the great historic churches of the city, and not in the company of a new group, brothers though they might be. Nonetheless, the realization that I would be in Israel on the occasion of this important anniversary gave a fresh thrill of excitement. I stepped up onto the bus while the ticket agent witnessed to the driver in a manner that walked the line between being winsome and bothersome, and then we were off.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Photo of the Week

O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.

- Psalm 63:1

Monday, September 24, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Everyone of us needs half an hour of prayer each day, except when we are busy--then we need an hour."

- Francis de Sales, 17th-cent. Roman Catholic clergyman and author of Introduction to the Devout Life

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace 
According to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.

- The Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:25-32), from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 13

            After three days at sea, the wonder and wildness of it all had worn a bit thin for the children. Though they had fair weather, and were able to enjoy the beauty of blue waves reflecting azure skies, they also learned that life on board a ship consisted of a nauseous sequence of pitching and rolling, of tight, uncomfortable hammocks, and of dry biscuits that were only rendered interesting whenever a weevil would scamper out of their cracks.
            Despite the rigors of life with the royal navy, however, the children found ways to amuse themselves. Joe and Sim ran races up and down the rigging, and Lady found an agreeable ear in the ship’s boy stationed in the crow’s nest, who would listen to her animated stories with an attention she never received from her brothers. They rode along up there, while their perch traced a graceful figure-eight over and over again in the air above the ship as the mast tilted and swayed with every dip of the deck.
            On that third day, though, Lady was watching silently as the lookout trained his glass out toward the western horizon. Within the next few hours they expected to sail within sight of the Great King’s realm. The boys were below, pacing back and forth on the forecastle deck with Kobi and Mack, waiting for the cry from above. At the rear of the ship, Captain Drave stood beside the boatswain at the wheel while both regarded the far horizon with bright eyes.
            Minutes dragged on in agonizing silence, until finally a shout went up.
            “Sail ho!”
            Kobi stopped, startled, and looked quizzically at the nearest officer. “Sail? Not land?”
            The officer shrugged.
            They all crowded the bow-rail and peered into the distance until they could just make out the white speck of something lingering on the edge of the horizon. Joe thought at first that it just looked like a bit of foam at the crest of a wave, but little by little it became clearer that it was a sail, a square patch of cloth made tiny by distance, and beneath it was a great wooden ship.
            Captain Drave strode up to the forecastle and trained his eyeglass at it. “I wouldn’t have thought it,” he muttered at last. “But that’s the ship you were chasing. We caught up to her before landfall.”
            “But how?” asked Mack. “We had to wait days to set off after them.”
            “The weather that passed through here recently was rough; far rougher than what we received. We were riding the tail end of those winds, but it may be that they were caught in the midst of the squall and had to drop sail. They may have been blown off course.”
            “Let’s catch up to them!” Sim said eagerly.
            It was the first time during their whole journey that they had been within sight of Prince Hal’s location, and the anticipation of that meeting flooded them with nervous excitement.
            “Aye, we may be able to do that,” said the captain. “We’ve got a fair wind at our backs, and they’ll be soon running into the crosswinds around the coast. We might be able to reach them before they disembark.”
            With a shout over his shoulder, Captain Drave ordered his men to raise all sail, and they steered to the furthest point of seizing all available wind in their shrouds. The Wellspring seemed to be bounding from wave to wave, so swift was the way she cut through the water. Foam rolled back from her slicing bow in long, graceful curls. As they raced over the surface of the deep, ever nearer the Great King’s realm, gulls began to throng the skies overhead, and every now and then a silvery dolphin would spring from the water and race alongside the ship for a time.
            Little by little, they drew closer to the ship ahead, until they were near enough for Captain Drave to wave a flag-signal for them to pull up and rendezvous. Sure enough, a few moments later the white shrouds of the other ship were taken in, and it rode becalmed while the navy frigate cruised alongside. At the same moment, the lookout gave another cry from far above.
            “Land ho!”
            They looked out, past the neighboring ship, and there on the western edge of the world a green line seemed to be spreading across their vision, just where the ocean met the sky: the verdant hills of the coast.
            The Wellspring pulled up directly alongside the other ship, and Captain Drave held up a large brass funnel, a speaking-trumpet which he set to his mouth in order to be heard over the distance that still separated them.
            “Ahoy there! This is His Majesty’s frigate Wellspring of the royal navy!”
            “At your service!” came the distant, tinny reply of the other ship’s captain. “How can we assist?”
            “We need to speak to one of your passengers—the man who embarked with you just before you left Westport!”
            There was a brief conversation aboard the other boat, as the captain and the men around him consulted in a little group. Then he raised his speaking-trumpet again.
            “He’s willing to come to you,” the captain called. “Prepare to receive a boat!”
            Breathless with anticipation, they watched as a man in a dark traveling-cloak descended a rope ladder from the side of the ship, down into a dinghy where a sailor was already present to row him over. Just a dozen strokes of the oars were enough to close the gap between the two ships, both rolling at ease on the ocean swells. While the boat was in motion, Lady clambered down from the crow’s nest to stand eagerly alongside her brothers and the two knights. Captain Drave had his ladder put down, and a few moments later the traveler appeared over the side-railing of the ship.
            His hood was up, obscuring most of his face in shadow.
            Joe looked hard at the man, trying to decide if he was the same one he had seen on that first dark night in Arrens. And even if he was, what if Joe had been wrong? What if he really was just a traveler on his way from the capital city to the Great King’s realm? What if the prince really had died in his sleep, as Steward Presten said, and their whole adventure had been nothing more than a vain fantasy?
            “Prince Halbrinnon?” Sir Mack asked.
            The traveler looked at him for a long moment, then slowly reached up and dropped his hood.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Shape of the Journey

"Pilgrim remember, for all your pain--
The Master you seek abroad you must find at home,
Or walk in vain."

- ancient Celtic proverb

~ ~ ~  

In ancient days, pilgrimage was all about the journey. Whether by land or sea, in every era except the vanishingly small century of our past experience, getting to the Holy Land took weeks of travel, if not months. Because of the rigors of the road, pilgrimage became a self-imposed course of spiritual discipline: prayers for safety, the fasting of having only travel provisions to eat, and the bodily mortification of long days on foot. By the time a pilgrim reached the Holy Land, he had already been formed by the course of his long march into the depth and peace of discipline. The holy sites then became the rich reward of a prize long sought, for which ample room had already been made in his heart.

We modern pilgrims are not so lucky. Technology has deprived us (as it usually does) of the most formative parts of experience. Instead of the soul-shaping rigors of a walk across nations or a voyage over uncertain waves, we instead spend an enervating day in the hellish no-man’s-land of buses, terminals, and airplane seats. Rather than an experience of being in the world on the way to the holy places, it becomes a heart-hollowing day of being essentially out of the world, stuck in the odd blank spaces in between where real people live, walk, work, and love. Flying in an airplane gives one almost no sensation of actually passing through the space of the nations over which we traverse: all we know is that strange, cramped little chamber. And then, we’re there: in the Holy Land! We experience not joy at the realization of hopes long savored, but rather the simple relief at the end of an uninterrupted series of shallow annoyances. We moderns, in our wisdom, have managed to make pilgrimage not a soul-building journey, but a simple hop nextdoor, paid for by the penance of a day of sitting lashed in tight quarters next to a thousand strangers who want nothing more than to be away from you.

What I’m trying to say, in my unbecoming habit of Luddite complaint, is that the actual journey of getting to the Holy Land didn’t feel real. When we stepped into the air of Israel, it seemed as though we had simply gone through an odd transmigration to a different world altogether. We were tired from jet lag and stressed from the annoyances of modern travel, and thus unprepared to meet those hallowed places. But since this is a record of my pilgrimage, I’ll begin the telling with my day’s journey on bus and plane.

In point of fact, I had actually spent a long time preparing for the journey. In place of actually being able to walk to Israel, I undertook an intellectual journey, reading every book I could get my hands on about the pilgrimage sites there, about the culture and recent history of the people who lived there, about the journeys of other famous pilgrims, about the saints and church fathers who had lived there, and about the birds whose presence God had lavished on that land. All of these things helped to build me up in hope and anticipation of what God might do there.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Photo of the Week

The season of singing has come,
The cooing of doves is heard in our land...
Arise, come, my love;
My beautiful one, come with me.

- Song of Solomon 2:12-13

Monday, September 17, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Most men are ambitious of the honor of great business, and power, and preferment; they covet it, they court it, they compass sea and land to obtain it; but the ambition of a Christian should be carried out towards quietness."

- Matthew Henry, late 17th-early 18th cent. British pastor and the author of one of the most influential Bible commentaries in history

(Painting: "A Quiet Nook," by Albert Fitch Bellows, 1869)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O Lord our God, make our hearts obedient to your divine will; turn our eyes away from vain things, so that, free from the world's attractions, they may always look on your glorious beauty. For you are our God, the God of compassion and salvation, and we glorify you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever, to the ages of ages. Amen.

- from Praying with the Orthodox Tradition

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 12

* Just a very short scene this week; forgive my lassitude!

            There were no other ships making sail for the Great King’s realm that day, nor the next. But Mack had heard of one scheduled to arrive soon and then to lift anchor the following day, and had arranged passage for the five travelers. That full day of waiting, however, and the two nights on either side of it, made a stern trial of their patience. They had been on the Prince’s trail since their journey began, and at the end they had come within just a few hours of him. Now the distance between them and their goal was increasing by leagues upon leagues of ocean.
            The morning of the third day found them standing on the dock, watching the rising sun illuminate the heaving blue sea before them. Their ship, a long sloop with a broad, sweeping curve to its bow, was anchored just a few lengths away, and its launch-boat was already on its way to pick them up. The sailors extended ready hands to help them as they took their seats, then set their backs to work again at the oars. As they drew near the ship, a rope ladder swung down to meet them. One by one the children climbed its swaying rungs, and the two knights followed. They were greeted at the top by a row of officers in crisp blue and white uniforms, at the end of which stood a very tall man with a thin, arched nose. He had a large black hat on his head, which in its shape reminded Joe of a ship turned upside-down.
            The tall man made a wide, sweeping motion with his arm as he bowed. “Welcome, friends. I am Captain Drave of the royal navy, and this is my ship, the Wellspring. I understand we bear some distinguished guests today.”
            “Yeah!” said Sim. “That’s Sir Mack, the knight.”
            “He’s legendary,” said Lady in her sweetly informative tone.
            “And that’s Sir Kobi, captain of the royal guards,” Sim continued.
            “Ah, yes,” said Captain Drave. “I know them both by name and reputation, and I am glad to have them aboard. But I was referring to the young heroes I was told about, whose courage and perseverance have kept the hopes of the royal house alive for this land. I take it that you are those three heroes.”
            The children blushed and squared their shoulders, not sure how to act under this glowing assessment.
            “Well, I’m Joe,” said the oldest. “And this is my brother, Sim, and my sister, Lady.”
            “It is my honor to stand at your service,” said Captain Drave. “We heard of the prince’s reported death and the steward’s takeover not long ago, and it grieved us. You have restored our hope.”
            After all the introductions had been made, the sailors made their ship ready. There was a wild circus of frantic but orderly activity, with men racing down the deck, others climbing up the rigging, and still others balancing out onto the spars to loose the sails. The children watched this display of activity and discipline with open mouths. As soon as the bright white canvas of the sails fell into place, the wind filled them taut, and all of the sudden the Wellspring was flying away from the harbor. Salty spray rose from the waves under the bow, flooding the air with exhilaration and adventure. Ahead of them stretched the bounding blue field of the sea, moving with such limpid grace that it looked like a silk blanket stretched out on the breeze.
            Joe was standing between Kobi and Mack at the base of the ship’s forecastle. “How long will it take to reach the Great King’s country?” he asked.
            “A few days,” said Kobi.
            “Hmm,” said Joe, drawing a deep breath of the wild, sea-tinged air. “I could take a few days of this.”

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Pilgrimage Memoir: Introduction

"But my one unchanged obsession,
Wheresoe'er my feet have trod,
Is a keen, enormous, haunting,
Never-sated thirst for God."

- Gamaliel Bradford, from his poem "God" 

~ ~ ~ 

I had fairly low expectations of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, except that I was hoping it would change my life forever.

I was smart enough to be jaded about the traps that gullible tourists fall into. I knew I would be shown a glimpse of a country presented in snapshots of carefully curated locations interspersed with air-conditioned rides that would take me quickly past the tensions and fractures of daily life. I knew that some of the presented sites would lean on historical conjectures that amounted to wishful thinking. And I knew that eight days was a laughably small window in which to claim an understanding of that part of the world; still less to pretend that I, in my brief bus-window experience, could say I had some association with it.

I was also spiritual enough to know that I didn’t have to visit the Holy Land. After all, wasn’t God omnipresent? Didn’t I have real experiences of union with Christ in the distant, wooded corners of the world that I called home? Wouldn’t it be foolishness to venerate the sacred sites with my time, attention, and money when I so often failed even to notice the far more sacred presence of Christ in my fellow churchgoers?

Thus reinforced in the belief that my pilgrimage was the equivalent of a silly flight of fancy in my spiritual life and that I was too smart to be lured into enjoying the experience, I prepared to go to Israel. And yet I felt, every now and then, an edge of anticipation flashing its gaudy plumage in quick and brilliant flyovers in my mind. I imagined myself standing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where history changed forever—the place where I had changed forever—when Jesus rose from the tomb in triumph over sin, death, and hell. And when I imagined that, my vision swam with tears. I wasn’t sure why. I knew I didn’t have to go there to be a good Christian, nor to understand and appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ. But I also knew, deeply and intuitively, that if I were there, it would set in resonant motion the deepest chords in my heart.

Though I would like to present myself as a casual and disinterested observer of the biblical landscape, like a gentleman-adventurer of the Victorian age, who measured and appreciated the experience in perfect moderation, subject to the regal dignity and discipline of his own well-molded character…I can’t. I just can’t. You see, when I began to think about going on pilgrimage, I suddenly felt the swell of a great unspoken desire rising like a tide within me: the longing to be transformed. I wanted the journey to change me irrevocably, to make me a man of disciplined godliness, a man who not only wanted to be good but who was consistently able to bring that desire to completion in his behavior. But that wasn’t me. I didn’t have it all together. I wanted to go and meet with Jesus on the shores of Galilee, but I knew that I wasn’t going as the righteous, but as a sinner.

And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Come and See: A Pilgrimage Memoir

In April of 2018, I undertook a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was made possible by the grace and generosity of my church and my family, who let me slip away for a couple weeks in the lull after the busy Easter season. Each Thursday, I'll be posting a section of my reflections on that trip. It is an attempt to capture, in my rather clumsy way, the essence of that experience--not merely the places I visited, but the spiritual journey that my pilgrimage eventually became. It may not be of interest to anyone besides myself, but, really, that's the underlying premise of this entire blog. The names of my fellow pilgrims have been changed, but otherwise the account is exactly as it happened. All photos that appear in the series are my own. Links to all published posts from this memoir will appear below.

The Shape of the Journey
Leaving Home 
My First Glimpse of Israel 
Birds and Guides 
A Confession
Strolling through Jaffa
A Piece of Maine in Tel Aviv 
A Sunrise Walk along the Waves 
Two Marvels by the Sea
Praying with Eusebius 
Praising and Pausing in Caesarea 
Up to Nazareth 
The Place It All Began 
The Basilica of the Annunciation 
I Cried Out, and He Answered Me 
A Celebration in Cana 
A Resting-Place for My Soul 
The View from the Mountain 
The Garden of Beatitude 
The Bread of Life 
Do You Love Me? 
The Scene of Our Lord's Signs 
Finding Shelter in His Glory 
Daring to Follow Fully 
The Day of Desolations 
The Consolations of His Grace 
Sunday Morning Joy 
Bridges of Faith and Love 
The Call of the Ascetic Way 
The Joy of All Generations 
The Church of Jesus' Sorrow 
The Winged Messengers of God 
My Bethlehem Backstory 
The City of the Lowly 
In the Middle of a Miracle 
Zion's Hope Fulfilled 
Down into the Darkness 
Of Doves and Tongues of Flame
The Way the Temple Faced
Paralyzed on the Steps to Healing
In the Halls of My Heroes 
Taking Up My Cross
The Sorrow of Golgotha
The Promise of Resurrection
Wings above the Wall
Jesus Came with a Wild Surprise
The Center of the World
The Road Home, and Onward

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Photo of the Week

The healing of His seamless dress is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life's throng and press, and we are whole again.

- Verse 5 of the hymn "Immortal Love," by John Greenleaf Whittier

Monday, September 10, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Disobedience to God is the worst thing."

- An anonymous 2oth-cent. Vietnamese Christian who had undergone persecution for his faith

(Painting: "The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian," by Carlo Crivelli, c.1490)

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

(Fresco of the Trinity, Jesuit church in Vienna, c.1705, © Hubertl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, send me your Spirit, O God; instill the wisdom of your Holy Spirit into my heart; protect my soul and body, every limb in my body, every fiber of my being, from all possible harm and all traps the Devil may set for me and every temptation to sin. Teach me to give you thanks, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

- Euchologium Sinaiticum

Friday, September 07, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 11

            With the burning lands behind them, the way was clear for their descent onto the narrow coastal plain, and ahead of them they could see the faroff glimmer of the sea. They looked back and let their gazes scour the rugged hills on the other side of the blackened canyonlands, but there was no sign of the Steward’s guards. They had evidently thought their work complete when they lit the barrens on fire, and had retreated back toward the capital.
            “Not very well trained,” Kobi muttered darkly. “They left without checking that they had finished us off. I’ll have to have a word with the overseer of their unit when I get back.”
            “Well, I for one am glad they’re poorly trained,” Mack laughed. “Now we can get on with our journey without having to worry about them.”
            “And maybe today we’ll find the prince!” said Sim.
            “Aye, maybe,” Mack replied. “At the very least, today we should be able to find a definite clue of some sort. If he came this way, then someone will have seen him down in the port, even if they didn’t realize who it was.”
            “No more talking, then; let’s go!” urged Joe.
            They set off in high spirits, marching down from the edge of the canyonlands and into the low coastal forest. It was bright and sunny here; the trees were a mix of low, fruit-bearing varieties, so the sun could stream in over and around their heads as they walked. The air was sweet with a thousand delicious scents, and the children filled their bellies and the saddlebags with wild pears, apples, chestnuts, and berries. With every few steps, a flash of red or yellow feathers would reveal the singing birds hiding among the boughs. After the danger and terror of the wolves, the wildmen, and the fire, it felt as though they had suddenly stumbled into paradise.
            As they drew ever nearer the port, the road widened a bit. When the first outlying village came up over a rise and into their sight, Kobi stopped and pointed down to the dust of the road.
            “There,” he said. “Do you see it? There’s a clear set of footprints right there—a traveler was walking this way earlier today.”
            “Can you tell how long ago it was?” asked Joe.
            Kobi shook his head. “My tracking skills are not quite that good.”
            “Maybe it’s the prince!” said Lady.
            “Maybe,” Mack allowed. “But we’re getting closer to populated areas again; it could have been just someone who came out to the forest to pick fruit.”
            As they followed the road down deeper into the plain, there soon came more sets of tracks in the dust, until it was a well-rutted roadway, with other travelers and animals and wagons going alongside them. Every now and then they would stop and ask people if they had seen anyone matching the prince’s description, but most of the replies were too vague to be of any help. So they simply kept plodding on, walking until the walls of Westport came into view.
            By that time it was late in the afternoon, and the sunlight streaming down on them from out over the sea had begun to take on a softer tone. It cast the stone walls of the port in a golden hue, so that the city seemed to be glowing as they approached. Westport was not a big city, at least not compared to their own home city of Arrens, but it looked like a sprawling civilization unto itself in comparison with the unpeopled wilderness they had just traveled through.
            At the gatehouse, Mack stopped and asked again if they had noticed a traveler like the prince.
            “Hmm, a younger adult man, you say?” mused the guard. “With a beard?”
            “He was probably wearing a traveling cloak, too,” added Joe, remembering his encounter with the prince, “maybe with the hood up.”
            A spark of recognition suddenly flashed in the man’s eyes. He snapped his fingers.
            “Yes, now that you say it, I did see someone like that. I know most of the locals around here, so a stranger tends to stand out. Yes, yes… As I recall, he kept to himself—just walked on through and headed down toward the harbor.”
            Lady squealed with excitement, and Sim hopped up and down.
            “When?” Mack pressed. “When was this?”
            “Late morning, just before I had my lunch.”
            Without another word, the five travelers set off through the streets, the knights walking briskly and the children running alongside. Down the narrow avenues they strode, straight down to the harbor. There the street opened up into a broad view of the quay, where a series of boats and ships lined the docks. Gulls wheeled and cried out overhead, and the air took on a wild tang of salt and seaweed. The harbor stretched out for some distance on either side of them, and they weren’t quite sure which way to go first.
            “Let’s split up,” said Mack. “Joe, you come with me. We’ll go to the left and ask around to see if anyone has seen him. Sir Kobi, you take Sim and Lady and go to the right. We’ll meet back here.”
            They all nodded agreement, so they split up and made the rounds of the docks, stopping in with every sailor, fisherman, and wharf-master to ask them the same question. Mack and Joe had no success at all in the southern end of the harbor, where many of the smaller boats were docked. So they returned to the meeting-point to see that the others were already waiting there.
            “Any news?” asked Mack.
            “A little good news and mostly bad news,” Lady answered glumly.
            “Yes,” said Kobi. “We know exactly where the prince is now. He—or at least someone who looks like the man we’re following—is on board a ship.”
            “Where? One of those ships?” asked Joe, pointing to the line of masts arranged at the harbor’s north end.
            “No,” said Sim. “He’s out there.” And he pointed straight out to the open sea.
            Sir Kobi nodded sadly. “It looks like we’re just a few hours too late. They said that he booked passage today on a ship making sail for the Great King’s realm, out over the sea. It’s already well underway.”
            The five friends stood in somber silence for a long moment. Just when their hopes were at their highest, it seemed that fate had taken an awful turn. They had survived all the dangers of the road only to get tantalizingly close to the prince. And then, right at the end, they fell short.
            “Well,” said Mack, resignation in his voice, “I guess there’s only one thing we can do, then.”
            The children nodded, knowing what would come next. They would have to go home, back to Arrens. They had given it their best shot, but it was over now. They hadn’t reached the prince before he left the realm, and so they couldn’t prove to the people that the Steward had been lying. All that was left now was the long road home.
            But then Joe looked up into Mack’s face, and it was clear that the old knight had another idea entirely.
            “Yes, only one thing left to do,” he said. “We’ve got to find ourselves a ship.”

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Prophecy of Judah's King

(Note to readers: This is the last "Glimpses of Grace" post from the book of Genesis. I'm planning on taking a break before continuing the series into Exodus. In the meantime, I'll be posting a series of memoir-essays in the Thursday slot about my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.)

In Genesis 49, we have a series of prophecies made by the dying Jacob over his twelve sons, the patriarchs of the tribes of Israel. Thus far Genesis has been mainly concerned with the character and story of only one of them--Joseph--but in this chapter another son, Judah (who heretofore had not really been a laudable character in the brief events narrated about him), earns a surprising spotlight. Of all the prophecies rendered, Judah's is the most startling (Gen. 49:8-12), not least because it speaks of a future kingship for his tribe.

So what is the content of this prophecy? In verse 8, we see that Judah is prophesied as receiving praise, victory over enemies, and the submission of his brothers. Then in verse 9, a famous image is introduced: "like a lion"--here we have, for the first time, an allusion to the "Lion of Judah." (And, of course, this would come to be one of the titles that the early church ascribed to Christ as the Messianic King.) The end of that verse says, "and who shall rouse him?"--clearly a reference to the obvious dangers of waking a sleeping lion, but early Christians also saw in this phrase a hint of Christ's resurrection.

It's in verse 10 that this passage takes a dramatic turn: the specific promise of an enduring kingship, with one particular Messianic figure in mind: "The scepter will not depart from Judah...until he to whom it belongs shall come." Indeed, the royal house of Israel was reckoned through the tribe of Judah from David's time onward. But the phrase "until he to whom it belongs shall come" is one that presents a tantalizing, multilayered set of prophetic possibilities. Christians and Jews alike have both seen in this phrase a promise of the Messiah: that one day someone would come to whom the whole line of Judah's kingship had always been pointing. Christians, naturally, believe that Christ fulfills that role in its entirety: he is both David's heir and David's Lord, the King of kings. But that particular phrase ("he to whom it belongs") is also a tricky one to translate; most modern translations will note several different possibilities. Another potential rendering is one that says, "until he to whom tribute is due shall come," or, more evocatively yet, "until he who is the gift offering shall come"--if that latter reading is correct, then we have a powerful foreshadowing of the role of the Messianic king as a sacrificial victim. Still other translations will attempt to render the Hebrew more directly, by simply saying "until Shiloh comes." If this reading is correct, it is rather more opaque, but certainly no less poetic and compelling. One possible interpretation would be that it is a reference to the physical location known as Shiloh, which appears most prominently in the Old Testament as the spot where the Tabernacle was placed upon the Israelites' entry to the promised land in the book of Joshua. Thus "Shiloh" would seem to refer to the actual presence of God among his people in the physical space of the land of Israel. If that reading is true, then this turn of phrase seems to indicate that the Messianic king from Judah's line will also be, in some sense, the abiding presence of God in the midst of his people. Whichever way you read that haunting line of "until he comes," it seems to point to Christ, either as the King of kings, as a sacrificial offering, or as "God with us."

And it doesn't end there. Verse 11 speaks of this Messianic king of Judah "tethering his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch"--a prophecy that is apparently literally fulfilled during Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his subsequent teaching of the church as the branches of his vine. Verse 11 also says that he will "wash his garments in wine." That might seem a little odd--washing in wine will not really succeed in washing anything; it will simply leave stains. But if Christ is in view here, then we have a fulfillment of this line that makes perfect sense, for it is through the blood of Christ that we are washed clean from our sins. Here, as in the New Testament, wine is taken as an allusion for blood, and so we have a prediction that the Messianic king will offer cleansing through the shedding of blood. To whom could this be pointing but to Jesus?