Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Shepherd’s Christmas

Story by John Miller

A few hours into his long night’s watch, the young shepherd stood guarding his flock. His eyes and ears strained to catch the slightest sound of any nearby predator.  His sheep lay sleeping, having filled their bellies on the sparse but rich green grasses of desert fields and had quenched their thirst from clear still waters. Each sheep had been carefully inspected and an ointment applied to the heads of those with open sores to keep insects from disturbing them.

The lowly shepherd, having led and guarded his flock by day, had settled them for a secure nights rest. He had given careful attention to the young unblemished lambs that were so few among the sheep.  As was the Abrahamic tradition, these sacrificial lambs were his highly valued possession and were to be closely guarded day and night. This was his night watch; his ancient duty recently entrusted to him by his older brother who slept nearby, leaning against an outcropping of a large smooth rock. His song of security and comfort to his flock was more an occasional “clicking” of his tongue to the roof of his mouth mixed with a soft, low humming. The sheep knew him.

From a distant field, he could hear the lonely song of another shepherd standing watch over his flock. His was a soft, mellow whistle with an occasional high pitch.  Each shepherd in his solitude was grateful for the watchful eye and ear of the distant other. Their keenly sharpened search beyond their flocks into the dark surrounding fields for predators was a combined effort for these men.  All was calm and quiet. All was well on this silent night in the fields outside of Bethlehem.

Suddenly, there came a heavenly event, a resounding sound in the dark skies that would forever change these lowly shepherds; would change the world. The young shepherd prodded his sleeping brother awake with his staff. “Get up, brother, there’s something happening,” he cried out. Fear gripped the shepherds until an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  These simple men had never seen an angel. They fell to the ground to hide their faces. Their sheep stirred but remained asleep.

The angel spoke to them saying, “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and the Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Hearing this, the shepherds lifted their eyes to the skies to see a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the two shepherds said to one another,”Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.”  As they crossed the fields, they called to the distant shepherds to join them. Each man left his flocks behind, unguarded by humans. They acted in trust of the angel’s words of proclamation; invited by heavenly hosts, their focus was on beholding the miraculous sight of the Infant Lord.  The shepherds girded their robes at their belts in order to run fast into the town of Bethlehem, whose name means “House of Bread.”

Approaching the manger, the shepherds fell to their knees several feet away from the Infant’s crib. “May we draw closer to see his face, please?” they begged. Their chests heaved and lungs burned from running from their fields.

“Sir, we unclean. Our clothes are ragged and dusty. Dear lady, we have no gift for your Child, except our hearts that pound with excitement inside our chests. We ran from the fields when the angel of the Lord told us of his birth. We left our flocks unattended. We must trust His angels to guard them while we are away.” Their calloused, trembling hands reached out towards the Child’s parents in their plea for permission to come into His presence. “Is it true? Is this child really the Lord? They asked. With heads bowed, they waited for the parent’s response in silent hope.

“Come near,” was Mary’s reply. He is sleeping but I will hold him up for you to see.” The shepherds’ eyes shifted to Joseph, who nodded in silent agreement with his wife. The men crawled close to the Child and his mother. None dare stand in the holy presence of the Lord.

“Welcome, to the world, Lord. We are unworthy beggars before you.” they uttered to the Child. Their quivering lips gave way to silence, as time stood still in their hearts. They gazed for long moments upon the face of the Child. “Thank you sir and dear lady,” they whispered and slowly backed away with heads bowed.  A deeper understanding of the angel’s proclamation had come to them. These lowly men, of no account to the rich townspeople or to the priests and scribes of the synagogue, were chosen to be the first human visitors to the Infant Christ, the Messiah.

 Christ was first revealed - not to honorable and distinguished witnesses - He passed by them, and chose shepherds, humble men of no rank. God’s promise in Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, the “seed of woman” was fulfilled in this infant Son of God. This awesome truth was imparted to simple men and in a manner that God saw fit.  Our God Incarnate who became the Word made flesh, Christ the Messiah, The Bread of Life and The Lamb of God was first welcomed into the world by lowly shepherds. After all, their work was to raise and protect the unblemished lambs that would be sacrificed at the coming Feast of Pentecost. By the power of the Spirit, they understood the simple, purposeful and yet unspoken holy name, “Lamb of God.” 

The Infant Child that was refused a decent space for birth in the town of Bethlehem had been given space in the hearts of simple men; had become their first Christmas gift to be shared with the world. Their hearts burned with joy, as they humbly received this gift of God’s grace. They believed. They understood. They would be the first human messengers of Christmas.

The shepherds each returned to their flocks, and found all of the animals safe and secure in the fading night. They had talked incessantly along the way to their fields. Each felt the urge to scream out the news of his encounter with the God Child, the newfound joy was nearly bursting within his chest. But each restrained himself for the sake of the other’s flocks. These uneducated men who lacked rank and were denied entry to the Temple of God, were now filled with the true meaning of the first Christmas; an understanding that came from the Holy Spirit. Wonderful images of the Blessed Infant and joyful thoughts of their first Christmas now filled their hearts. They would not, could not sleep for now.

The shepherd’s lonely night watch would never again be the same. Each man reveled in the dirt on his garment and the worn sandals that marked him as humble and lowly, yet he was regarded to be of great worth by his Savior.  Each pondered how to tell his family of this night’s blessing. Would he be believed? Their nearly inexpressible thoughts consumed them. “Silent Night, Holy Night!”

The awakening dawn invited their weary eyes to search skyward, where in its passing dark night, the song of angels had heralded great news of the newborn God-Son, Emmanuel.  The nearby rolling hills now hid the little Town of Bethlehem where they had seen the face of The Lamb of God, The Good Shepherd. It was the first Christmas morning.


One may wonder why the Biblical account of Christ’s birth is so simple, so brief. This divine and incomprehensible act of love needs few Scriptural words. The brief account of this miracle birth stirs the Spirit-inspired hearts and minds of men who endlessly re-count that which is bound up in the deeper mystery of God’ infinite grace – His purposeful and unchanging truth. God’s infinite wisdom, so often seen as foolishness in the eyes of most men, exceeds all human wisdom that will ever exist in the world.  The God-child’s lowly birth place, his call to lowly messengers of the field to witness his humble beginnings was pure, divine and purposeful. The “Seed of woman,” which God promised to fallen mankind in the Garden of Eden, the Incarnate Redeemer who would reconcile sinful man to Him, was in made flesh upon the earth. He lay in a manger.  It was the first part of Christ’s “emptying himself of the outward glory and majesty of His deity in preparation for His redemptive work on the Cross of Grace; of becoming flesh, God incarnate and being welcomed into a needy world by humble messengers, shepherds – simple men without exalted life agendas. And this year we hear their humble message once again, Christ has come! “Merry Christmas to all!”

Witness to the King on a Donkey

Witness to the King on a Donkey

He’s coming. You’re there among the noisy, pressing crowd outside Jerusalem’s gate. You struggle to see past flailing arms and the colorful, cloth-covered heads of ancient humanity. You raise your arms to fend off the palm leaves they are waiving that brush close to your face. Ruddy, sunburned faces peer past you, as if you’re not there.  But you see them and their eyes tell a story. Some are friend, some are foe.  Some appear mildly curious, some are gleeful. Some don garments of wealth and some are beggars.  Others have a look of hatred; these Temple spies nervously dart their eyes about, as if they know that their thoughts are exposed to Him.  A few are crying. 

 A woman stands close by. Her face is drawn from exhaustion. Her eyes, red and swollen, reveal a torment from years of knowing; a prophecy spoken to her by old Simeon in the Temple is about to be fulfilled. Her heart is breaking. You know of her.

Cries of desperation and praise rising from the throng reach a crescendo, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The air about you is ionized. The hair on your arms and neck is statically charged. You feel His presence, even before you can see Him beyond the pressing throng of gawkers. You have the sense that tens of thousands of unseen angels are covering the hillsides, whispering words of comfort to their Master. An unspeakable peace wraps you in awe and wonder about this Jesus, the Messiah. He’s coming.

“What will He look like?” you wonder. Memories of stories read and songs sung paint images of Jesus in your mind. You recall images of the Infant Child in the manger, the young boy seated among the elders of the Temple, the carpenter working alongside Joseph and the man baptized in the Jordan.  Your mind is flooded with the seemingly countless and varied images of Jesus on church walls, in painted murals along the freeway and on walls of old city buildings, on post cards  in the shops and malls. He has been depicted as being white, black, Latino, Asian and Middle-Eastern.

He is the centerpiece on Facebook for many Christians. Countless slogans use him in the sale of wares. He is depicted as Master, Savior and, all too often, as an errand boy. Is He like any of those images?  Is He the homeless man, bearded and dirty that you ignored on the street yesterday. In your mind you know this Jesus has possessed a place in your heart for a long time.

Or, perhaps there was no room for this Jesus in your heart.  You’re unprepared for this encounter. If He weren’t atop a donkey, if you hadn’t a vague recollection of stories having been told about Him, if the pressing throng of ancient flesh was not praising and pleading, what manner of person would you expect to see?  If the scene before you was not a spectacle would you even care?

Why are you there, just beyond the city gate? What does He want from you? He’s coming.

He’s close by now. The young donkey’s hooves clogging on cobbled stones slow to a stop. There is no crowd. There is just you and this King on a donkey.  He is in front of you, silent. Jesus. He’s ordinary in appearance, yet indescribably beautiful! He’s looking right at you with loving, understanding eyes that penetrate your very heart and soul. His look tells you that you are known and loved, that He has always loved you unconditionally.  You know it.  He has created every cell of your body and owns your heart, soul and mind and the gasping breath that finally escapes from your heaving chest. “Hosanna!” 

What are you to Him?  Lover? Doubter?  Hater?  Scoffer?

You’re at the gate.

                 Story by John Miller

Friday, September 27, 2013

Reflections of a Listener

Reflections of a Listener

To begin with, the title of my story is probably wrong.   I’ll have to think about that as I begin my scribbling. Now, I’m writing this to an audience of all ages but who will read the entire story depends on his or her cultural upbringing.

The premise for this scribbling is that I’ve been inclined to talk a lot most of my life, not always with my mind in proper gear. But there was a time in my youth when I was a quiet listener to the conversations of my elders.  “Who cares,” you are probably thinking. May I remind you that you’re reading this for free?  It wouldn’t raise a dime if today’s dime had any value. I’ve already concluded that won’t make it an “app.”

 I was prompted to this writing by my Sis Dott who called today. I’m almost 73 and she’s pushing up against 80. We both still have our wits about us, except that we habitually call someone by the wrong name(s) until we get it right.  I’m telling the world on her, because I’m sure that she will admit it if corrected by the offended party.  I inherited this faulty name calling habit from my loving grandmother, Mamimaw. She’s in heaven and I hope will call me by my right name when I get there.

Anyway, our conversation drifted around to discussing our perplexity with today’s “I phone” culture. I pause here to admit that my PC Word program auto-corrected my spelling of I Phone. Dott told me that she has a Smart phone but hasn’t allowed it to be grafted to her hand as yet.  She turns it off on Sunday in order to talk with the Lord the old fashioned way, and may not turn it back on until mid-week, perplexing her grown kids. Admittedly, I’m a “dumb” phone user. I won’t text and can’t (won’t) take a photo to send along to someone who wasn’t expecting it. I would prefer the old (ancient) analog version; black with a dial, a short cord slaving the receiver and its user and hanging on the kitchen wall.  Hey, that old analog phone is perfectly safe from extreme solar flares and electromotive pulse (EMP), should a nuclear bomb explode over the good old USA. Not so good a thing for the digital world of ever-shrinking yet advancing microelectronics….your cell phones and App devices would be toasted…sorry kids.

Dott and I readily agreed that attempting a face to face visit with our younger kids is to compete with the darn phone that is apparently glued to their palms; their fingers flying on little buttons that I can’t see and their eyes glued to a little screen designed “for their eyes only.” They are doing their own thing, having habitual and incessant communications with someone not in the room with us. A psychologist recently asserted that today’s generation will have latent anxiety problems resulting from their self-imposed need to be “in touch” with the “In crowd.” I’ll continue my ragging on the youth in a few moments but now must return to the premise of this story; my being a quiet listener at one time.  If this gets too heavy for you, skip it and turn on Oprah, Suburgatory, Teen Wolf or 90210.  Yes, I got the names of these TV shows from Google. I admit to dabbling with the digital world…but not in the presence of good company.

After my dad died in 1955, my twin brother Jay and I, then teenagers, bounced around between homes of relatives. Having eaten our brother Bill out of house and home, we became the extra mouths at Sis Dott’s home, competing with her husband John and their kids for the extra fried eggs and last piece of bacon. Jay and I were real girl crazy, so we played in the high school band…I’m told that today's bands are “chick magnets.”

 Well, back to Dott’s home.  I never shut up my teenage ramblings, especially when John was trying to watch Alfred Hitchock on the 13 inch black and white. Mischievously fidgeting with TV rabbit ears to deliberately blur the picture while running my mouth, I was often chased out of the house by John and the door locked behind me till the TV went off. Dott would say that I’m stretching things a bit here and she’d be right.  Eventually, and to avert their bankruptcy over food bills, I drifted on to Mamimaw’s home in Greenville Mississippi. It was there that I learned to listen to the conversations of others. I was age 16.

Mamimaw lived in an old antebellum home built by her father. It was actually a duplex before such a thing was known by modern architects.  Her cousin Maude and husband Jimmy lived in one side and she occupied the other. A central wall divided the two units and there was a pass-thru nook in that wall that housed a telephone…black, dial tone and short receiver cord.   I’d be safe in guessing that her phone bill was about $3 a month, if no long-distance calls were made.   The old black phone with a rotary dial weighed about 5 pounds and sat atop a skinny round table. The receiver alone weighed a pound was multi-purpose, as it could serve as a club in the event of an intruder!  Its coiled receiver cord was very long so the phone could be shared thru a custom wall opening with Maude.  Maude, from her side of the duplex, would holler the phone number she wanted to be dialed by Mamimaw.  Are you getting the picture?

Life with Mamimaw was generally quiet, except when I blasted out “Night Train” on an old detuned saxophone that I found in a closet. Her 1st rule…no sax at night. I was still a talker and my cousin Jimmy learned to obediently nod his head to my nonsense while he listened to baseball on his radio…hard wired, black, 10 pounds heavy and plugged into the porch AC outlet. I loved Jimmy but he would not let me smoke his cigars. Ok, OK, I’ll get to the point of this scribbling.

The ritual after supper was to retire to Mamimaw’s front porch. It was screened in and divided on 2 sides just like the inside of the home.  An old but sturdy metal glider was our seat and the old tree stump in the front yard was in the foreground of our view of Broadway and the big old homes across that divided boulevard. Crickets competed with buzzing mosquitoes for our night sounds. The protocol was to quietly enter the porch and be seated and to glide quietly until a conversation would begin. Parties from either side of the divided porch screen could initiate the evenings talk. It was dark but electricity wasn’t to be wasted on a porch light, so there was at best the faint image of bodies present illuminated through a glass windowed front door by a 40 watt light in the foyer.  When Jimmy puffed on his cigar, the red glow added a little light and was accompanied by the aromatic smoke that wafted through the screen to our noses.   Maude would scold him if he puffed too hard or too often.  He claimed that it keep mosquitos away.

For the first week or so, I was bored and went digging for my non-existent I Phone. Eventually, I caught onto the “meter” of the elder’s conversations and learned a thing or two about politeness and civility of communication that was ingrained in my elders. A typical evening’s conversation went something like this:

Maude: “Florence,” she called Mamimaw by that name, “I was thinking about Margaret today.”

Long pause before Mamimaw replied:  “I was fond of Margaret also but haven’t thought of her lately.  How many years since she passed away now? And, did you ever meet her cousin Gail?”

Maude, after a pause: “Seems she passed away in 1930 or so. It was while she lived in Memphis, I believe, or was it Jackson?” 

Pause, then Mamimaw would add: “Jackson, as I recall. She was just a few blocks from Mabel on Birch Street.”  She wore that red hat everywhere she went, you know.

Pause, then Maude elaborated: “I suppose you’re right. No, I don’t recall meeting Gail, although Margaret often spoke of her. She was older than Gail by a few years, I suppose.” Gail’s father was a butcher in Jackson, Oh yes, now I recall, it was Jackson. Margaret finished high school there, I think she told me. She went on to nursing school in Memphis, as I recall.

Jimmy seldom spoke but added humorous words muffled behind his cigar which he proudly puffed alive, much to Maude’s chagrin.  She missed his mumbled comment about Margaret’s red hat or Maude would have smacked him.

Mamimaw made no reply. Enough had been said on that point. It would have been impolite for her to probe Maude’s recollection of Gail. After a pause, she might begin a new discussion. Or not. Just sitting quietly and sharing the evening was sufficient.

 Jimmy was the one to break up the party, as he headed to bed mumbling “Night all.” Maude would confirm that he put his cigar out complexly before he was given leave of her company.  I took the opportunity to excuse myself and continue looking for my IPhone.

Through my bedroom window screen, I could hear the soft but muffled words of the ladies another half hour or so before they bid each other a good night.  Folks today might call such muffled talk “white noise,” to which would I would drift off to sleep. There was no sense looking for my IPhone, as all lights were off when Mamimaw headed to bed.

The conversation wasn’t important to me but the civility and politeness of listener to speaker became very apparent. There was this gentle communication and sharing of the slightly cooling evening air that made up their evenings. Their voices were never raised and the subject never as important as the exchange of memories and mutuality of minds on small, almost forgotten matters. Their words seemed to waft between screened spaces to gently break the night’s darkness.  There was the caring for even small talk that made the evening pass.  These were tender, gracious times for my elders; times for me to remember.

In all truthfulness, I have remained a talker and often interrupt others in conversation or blurt out some useless point like a bull in a china closet. Apparently, I have forgotten the valued lessons of evenings spent on Mamimaw’s front porch.  Thanks Sis Dott for your call and the occasion to remind myself of gentler times.

I’ll skip my planned ragging on the youth and yield to their “digitized” culture of “on-screen friends.” Perhaps, in their late years, they might recall fond memories of conversations in their own way.  I hope that a few pleasant memories of gentle, face-to-face conversations will be theirs to savor, when their aged eyes can’t focus digital screens of their IPhone and they must rely on implanted digital memory chips with a directory of filterable messages.  I’m not taking any bets on it.




Friday, April 20, 2012

Divine Intrusion at Jericho

Divine Intrusion at Jericho
by John Miller

David stumbled as he stepped down from the tourist bus. He was steadied by the grip of an old man who seemingly appeared out of nowhere.  “Thanks for the helping hand, Mr.?” David remarked appreciatively.  “My name? Sir, it’s not unimportant,” replied the old man. In fact, David, I am not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. But I was in Jericho to see Jesus enter our ancient city.”

 The tourist stepped back, startled.  “Do I know you?” David barely uttered. Oh! I see that I have shocked you…that usually happens to everyone I meet,” the old man remarked. “No, I’m not crazy and you’re not dreaming. No need for panic…I’m harmless.” He continued.  I’m sure that you’ll probably never tell anyone of this encounter with me,” he chuckled. They wouldn’t believe you anyway. I see that you’re uneasy but I’d like to speak with you.”

David’s face was pale and he was unable to speak. He looked around to see if others were witnessing his encounter with the strange old man. “No worries, the others can’t see or hear me as you do,” the old man said. “But since they can see your face and reactions, perhaps we should step away from the crowd, so we can speak together in private. I’d like to tell you a story. Let’s walk slowly.  I’m an old man and a bit unsteady myself, as you can see. There’s plenty time for telling this story. In my day, we took time to let stories linger in our thoughts and on our lips, so that we would savor the meaning of even the smallest word. You needn’t worry about the tour bus leaving without you.”  Still, the wary tourist looked about nervously.

 “Why did he pick me? Will I get stuck with this weird old man and miss the tour?” David wondered.  He looked about but found no one interested in him or his mysterious host. ”Can they see him or not?” he wondered. He felt oddly compelled to go along with this stranger’s story. “

 The old man peered out from the tattered hood of a long, dusty robe. His white bearded, aged face and his ancient garb with worn leather sandals made him appear “in character for a play.   David wondered, “is he was accustomed to performing for the curious tourists who arrived by the bus loads?”  “Are you an actor? Have I stumbled upon a play of some sort,” David asked. He suspected that the old man would surely demand payment for his unsolicited story. “

 “No, there is no play. But I assure you that what I say is true, the old man replied, and there is no fee. “Now Sir, try not to interrupt, and I’ll be on with my story. David complied.

“You must be very curious about me,” continued the old man. “Well, I’m a poor Jew, born nearby. I was about 30 years old when I met Jesus.” David instinctively raised a hand, as if to stop him.  “Let me continue,” the elder said, ignoring the tourist’s response.  “I was a distant follower of Jesus; somewhat curious and just one of the many faces among the crowds sitting on the hillsides.” He read the question that came on David’s face. “Yes, I knew Jesus, at first as “Teacher,” as did most people at the time. I was there for his miraculous feedings of thousands. I was always a little curious about his parables. Jesus had a way of drawing people to him, a commanding presence about him that I’ll never forget. “The cautious but inquisitive look on David’s face brought further comment. “ You are wondering, “Did I become a member of “The Way?”  “I’ll tell you about that later.”

“Oh, before I go any further, allow me to address your avid interest in Jericho. You’ve come a long way to see the city. Well, the brochure you’re holding says that it’s the oldest city in the world. That’s true. It once was a prosperous commercial and agricultural region, heavily traveled by tradesmen and vendors in camel caravans from the nearby Jordan Valley and elsewhere. The old road entering the city was little more than a wide, dusty swath through our vineyards. Camel caravans and donkey carts had worn deep ruts in it, making walking a bit precarious. Closer to the square and shops were narrow, cobble stone streets. Still, keeping the dust down was a great problem. Look at that old shop there, its roof patio is typical of the times. Families ate their meals and spent leisure time high upon roof patios, away from the dust and dung of the crowded street.”  His comment seemed to raise a peculiar question in his head. He paused to add, “I’ll get to that later. “

“You folks have had over two thousand years to read the Bible to learn about what happened when Jesus came to Jericho.  It seems like your generation is without excuse for not reading.  Nowadays, you carry around little devices loaded with of electronic books. There seems no end of ways for you to learn what’s important,” the old man said. “Being poor, I had little access to the ancient scrolls of my time. I learned to read and count using the writings and numbers scratched into pieces of broken clay by merchants and traders and in the shops,” he added. “Oh well, I promised you a story, and there’s a mighty important one about the big tree that standing there that has caught your eye. I believe that you want to know about the little man named Zacchaeus,” he stated emphatically. “Oh Yes, I noticed you staring at that tree as the bus arrived. That’s why I approached you. Let’s walk to that bench under its shade and I’ll get started.”

David followed the old man, still looking about the mingling crowd for any sign of a curious eye on them. There was none. “I’m sure that your tourist guide on the bus has told the story of Zacchaeus climbing a Sycamore-fig tree. It’s from the Bible. Luke 19:1-10, right? You’ve read Luke, I’m sure. That’s what “put Jericho on the map,” as you moderns like to say. I’m very amused by the vernacular of your day. I’ll fill in the blanks, so that you get the richest meaning of God’s message in those verses. Now, let me tell you about my Jewish friend Zacchaeus.”

“I guess if you knew Jesus you also new Zacchaeus,” David remarked in a quiet voice and with some sarcasm.”  He had gained his nerve to challenge this old man’s story.  “How far will this old man stretch his tale,” he wondered. The notion of the old man still demanding a fee at the last minute wasn’t far from David’s mind.

“Yes, of course I knew Zacchaeus!” the old man replied in a raised voice, causing David to pull back suddenly. He looked about for anyone who might be staring at him, apparently talking to himself.  No one had noticed.  “I do call Zacchaeus my friend now but in those early days, I usually kept my distance from him.  He had no Jewish friends and wasn’t all that friendly to the locals and passers-by, except to the rich Gentile traders. He was also friends with the Romans. Let me tell you a little more about Zacchaeus. It’s important that you understand his background.”

Something stirred in David and he listened to the old man. “Strange, he felt he must listen to him.”  Are others watching me?” he wondered.

The old man continued, “At the time of Christ, the Jewish nation was under rule and taxation by the Roman Empire.  These “dogs,” as we called them openly worshiped their many false gods displayed in their homes and the surrounding public buildings. And, they taxed our people who hated paying tribute to Rome.  They resented paying their hard-earned money to fund the “pagan foreigners” who had invaded their land and had long oppressed them. The Tax Collectors fell into 2 groups; both were Jews. The General Tax Collector group annually collected lawful taxes for property such as farms, land and houses, individuals and, income taxes. The second Tax Collector Group, were known as publicans. These Jewish publicans had become willing contractors to the Roman authorities and were allowed to collect taxes as they saw fit. They Jews sat at tax booths stationed alongside roads, bridges and at entrances to the public buildings and the main parts of town. Many were crooked men. They collected taxes from the all Jews and the traveling vendors of other nations who entered or exited the city. They extracted fees for the most unreasonable things such as each person crossing a bridge (in both directions) and, at times, even when exiting that bridge. There was no other way to enter certain properties or areas of the city. Carts and their contents were taxed, as was the animal pulling the cart and/or every person riding in them. The larger the cart or the greater number of its wheels, the more it might be taxed. These greedy tax collectors were allowed to keep part of the revenue for themselves. Most Jews considered the tax collectors to be robbers and thieves.” But truth be told, many Jews merchants and leaders were greedy and cheated their own people, and had come to live a lifestyle much like the Romans. The palatial homes of rich Jews built on the hillsides had adopted the Roman architectural themes.  You moderns might call it a “love-hate relationship.”

David was now caught up in the old man’s story. He lost track of time as the story turned to the little man in the tree he had read of in the Bible.  

“Well,” continued the old man, “Zacchaeus was a rich Jew and a chief tax collector. He had sold himself out to the Romans and had become wealthy at the expense of his own people! That was his greedy game.  The Jews considered him to be a cheater, and sinner, although Scripture does not say that he cheated anyone,” the old man clarified. But Zacchaeus’ life changed one day---forever! I’ll never forget the day that Jesus came to Jericho. To use your vernacular, Jesus is a game changer!”

David’s mind turned to the central character of the story…Jesus. He felt a little embarrassed for having focused on the “little man in the tree,” and wanting to see the famous tree that was marked for all of history. “This old man has a convicting way of putting things in focus,” he thought.

“By the way, as I tell you these things, I want you to consider something important about Scripture,” the story teller instructed. “What I’m about to tell you is based entirely on God’s Word. It’s worth reminding you that every word of the Bible is alive, everlasting, truthful, meaningful and purposeful. In Isaiah 55:11, as elsewhere in Scripture, God declared the power and purpose of his faithful word for us. God's Word is precious to Him, as it goes forth with unstoppable power to execute His will in all things.  God's Word is integral to His grace and His justice, His omnipresence and His holiness, His majesty and His glory. These are not quiescent attributes, but are active, dynamic and infinitely perfect and purposeful.  And, as God is, so is His Word. It is only when we firmly trust His word that we dig deeply for its fullest meaning in our lives. I see that you brought along your Bible, so go ahead and read Luke 19:1-10. I’ll rest a bit while you read.”

David obliged the old man, and turned to read slowly, the Scripture as cited. When he had finished, he rested the bible in his lap. The old man returned to his story.

“The name Zacchaeus means “righteous one or pure one.” Did you know that?" the story teller asked David.  The tourist admitted that this meaning had escaped his reading. “I find it curious, that his name had such a sacred meaning, giving his chosen occupation,” the storyteller declared, “curious, I say!” “But then, you see, Zacchaeus’ parents must have expected something great of him to give him that name,” the old man added. “Can you imagine what alienation and hatred they suffered as a result of their son’s association with the Roman authorities as a tax collector?  His parents took the blunt of cruel jokes and ridicule from their neighbors. Some shops wouldn’t trade with them. Theirs was a hard life, despite the ample monies Zacchaeus often gave them. “

David found himself agreeing with the story teller. “Yes, I see their predicament,” he interjected.  An old lady sitting nearby took notice of David talking, apparently to himself.    “If he’s not on an ear phone, he’s an odd duck,” she thought.  She shifted away a few feet on the bench that surrounded the great tree.

“I’d say that Zacchaeus was well aware of the cost of his occupation to his parents and to himself,” the old man replied. “His lot was a mixed bag, as you folks might say.” “After all, he was rejected by family and friends and ultimately became one of the most despised people in the city. So, why do you suppose that he choose to be a tax collector? Was he ridiculed for his small size? Is that why he later opted to buy his acceptance among the rich? Did he choose friendship with the Romans who held less prejudice against him? Whatever the cause, I always assumed that his life was empty, despite his wealth. What does this say about love of money? Well, on with my story,” he added.

“Messianic fever ran high among the excited crowds who followed Jesus. They greeted him as he traveled to the holy city, attracted by his preaching and miracles; his very presence. His following was large, viewed by many as rebels, opposed to the well established Jewish customs. And there were the idly curious, scoffers and doubters scattered among the needy ones who anxiously hailed Jesus for His miracles. Some wondered if Jesus was the Messiah, who had come to save them from their Roman oppressors. Others were spies sent out by the Temple officials who weren’t buying Jesus’ story. They were expecting a strong military or political leader to break them away from the oppressive hold of the Romans.  Jesus knew their fickle and hardened hearts but loved them anyway. Did you know that when Jesus entered Jericho, he was only one week away from his crucifixion?” he asked.

“I…I’m not sure,” David replied. This was another fact that he had not considered in his reading of Luke.  The reality of Jesus’ ministry had just been raised a notch in his mind.

 The old man leaned close and griped David’s forearm with boney fingers. The story became intense in tone. His weathered face and peering eyes added to the drama of the moment. “That day was hot and dry. I saw the dust cloud kicked up by the feet of the approaching throng of intruders to our city.  By its size, I knew this mob had to be Jesus and his followers. Others gathered looking for a show; merchants, traders and buyers at the edge of town had become curious.  Some of them tagged along behind and ahead of Jesus. The crowd swelled as customers left the town shops and ran ahead to join the mob. The crowd trekked the dusty road and came to this very square where we are seated.  Jesus’ presence was spellbinding for most of them; for me. For reasons I still don’t understand, I ran first to tell Zacchaeus.

You told Zacchaeus that Jesus was in town?” David blurted out the question.

“Yes, that’s right.  I told Zacchaeus that Jesus was coming… but I never expected his reaction!  Please, let me go on with my story,” snapped the old storyteller.

“Which one is this Jesus that I hear talk about?” Zacchaeus asked me excitedly, “I want to see him.” I had never seen my friend so excited, so worked up. He rose suddenly from his tax booth, spilling his tray of coins to the floor, and he ignored them….really!”

 “There, he is standing at the front of the crowd,” I replied to my friend. “Zacchaeus quickly closed up his booth and ran into the crowd. He was not alone. The local vendors, in increasing numbers, had left their shops unattended to join their friends who jammed the street to gawk at the noisy visitors. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. Next thing I see is Zacchaeus perched high in this tree, his expensive outer garment dirty and torn by the tree limbs. He was a funny sight! One of the merchants stared up at him, sneering and murmuring snide comments, while others strained their necks to see Jesus over the shoulders of taller people. My little friend did well to climb the tree so quickly. Never was there such commotion in all of Jericho!”

“People have asked me, “Why did Zacchaeus run to climb the tree?”  “That’s a good question; one with many possible answers. Frankly, I wondered why he didn’t go up on a nearby shop roof for a good view. But then, he wasn’t welcome at those shops unless he was spending money. Storeowners usually overcharged him, just to get back at him for his own greed. Anyway, I can tell you that he should never have run in the street, because to do so, he lifted his skirt to expose his legs. Wealthy, well-dressed men never lifted their skirt in public. Such behavior would bring immediate ridicule and embarrassment upon the man. Although, I did hear Jesus speak of such a happening, when he told the parable of the Prodigal Son. Do you know that story, David?”

 Without waiting for David’s reply, the old man continued his story.  “Jesus said that the boy’s father ran to meet his long lost son, so I imagine that he raised his skirt or he would have tripped in the field. If Jesus said it, then I suspect that he was making an important point about the mindset of the father. But certainly, most Jews of the city would never climb a tree in the presence of others. We are a prideful bunch!”

“So, what do you think motivated Zacchaeus to drop his pride and climb the tree to see Jesus?  He asked David.   The tourist began a reply but was interrupted by the story teller. “Was he merely securing the best viewing post ahead of someone else? There were Gentiles in the crowd and any one of them might have climbed that tree without hesitation. Some books of your generation say that the Sycamore-fig tree of Judea was considered unclean because its fruits were used to feed the pigs. I won’t say one way or the other, but surely Zacchaeus would not have climbed that tree, if he hadn’t traded his pride and willingly suffered great embarrassment for the opportunity to see Jesus up close. Some people say he was merely curious. I prefer to think that he wasn’t going to let his wealth come between his soul and God. As a Jew, somewhere in the depths of his soul he knew his Maker. The talk of Jesus, the Messiah that had reached his ears had fulfilled Jesus’ plan for the appointed meeting at Jericho. The little rich man was tucked in a tree, his eyes glued on the Messiah trudging along in the dusty street. He didn’t know what to expect but his deliberate and risky action didn’t go unnoticed by Jesus. His was an impulsive act, not so much of his choosing.  Imagine that! God calling for Zacchaeus to be perched in a tree; some say an unclean tree, to meet his Beloved Son.  A lost sinner perched in an unclean tree….he was more than curious. He was compelled to seek what he couldn’t possibly understand as his need for forgiveness and unconditional acceptance. Jesus met Zacchaeus just that way…grace abounded for the sinner in the tree. Surely the Holy Spirit was at work.” The old man paused at length to let his words soak into David’s mind.

After a moment, David raised his head to look high into the sycamore tree.  He could almost see Zacchaeus leaning down to see Jesus as the Messiah closed onto the scene. Zacchaeus’ eyes strained through tears to behold the upward gaze of Jesus, smiling brightly with a love that overwhelmed the little man. David was mesmerized by the scene and choked back his own tears as the storyteller continued.

“I think that Jesus anticipated finding the strange little man sitting up in a tree. He fully intended to intrude into Zacchaeus’ life of pride and greed. After all, as you read in the Bible, Jesus is the Good Shepherd searching for his wayward sheep. Just a short time before, Jesus had told that parable to the unbelieving Pharisees. You’ll find that in Luke 15:1-2,” the storyteller added.

Anticipating David’s next question, he continued, “Yes, I was there among the crowd on the hillside to hear Jesus’ teaching.  That day, The Good Shepherd must have been anticipating who Zacchaeus would become, once he embraced His limitless love! Jesus divinely intruded into Jericho and straight into Zacchaeus’ life to show him unconditional acceptance; to show him how to live through him. Yes, I say “intruded” because the people of Jericho had been busy with their own lives, never expecting to experience the commanding presence of Christ. Most were not willing to acknowledge their Master, even when the stories of His miraculous healings preceded Him in every town he entered.  His spoken truths had all but fallen on deaf ears of those hearing of those accounts.  Jesus entered this ungodly environment of Jericho and upset their pervasive ignorance, prejudice and pride. He always had a plan to advance His ministry. Jesus came and worked all things in truth and love. He is a game changer, you know. You can read about that in 1 John 4:9. The little man in the tree never expected what followed, when Jesus looked up and spoke to him.” The old man paused to let David lean closer to hear the unfolding story. He observed the tear-filled eyes of the tourist. 

“Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” I remember the surprised look on Zacchaeus’ face when Jesus called him from that tree. Shock and inexpressible joy combined in his facial features, as he jumped down from the tree limb, scraping his knees on the ground. Ignoring the dust on his garment, he rose awkwardly to his feet to stand before Jesus.

 “Look Lord,” I heard him say, as he claimed responsibility for his sinful past and offered to make restitution for his cheating. Do you understand by his use of the title “Lord,” that Zacchaeus had suddenly recognized Jesus as his Master?”

David paused to think. “Yes, I did see that in an earlier reading,” he commented. The old man didn’t respond to David but continued his story.

“The little man’s gratitude for God’s outpouring of saving grace revealed that Jesus had radically changed the life of the hated tax collector. I saw the effect of a newfound faith, expressed in unashamed joy, as my friend Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus to go to his home. Obviously, Jesus saw it too, because something supreme happened at that moment.”

“What happened,” David asked loudly. He was spellbound by the story unfolding before him.  The old woman seated nearby had heard his open question, her face revealing her displeasure at her own thoughts being disturbed.  “He’s probably still on the phone, she thought to herself. “ Why can’t people leave those things at home!” She grunted, as she turned away.

“I saw it! The storyteller exclaimed in a sharp, elevated tone. “It happened right before me!  It was written all over Zacchaeus’ face!   His facial expression revealed that his hardened heart was instantly changed; its door had swung wide open and the little man was filled with God’s grace. The tax collector who had been controlled by greed was now mastered by Jesus’ inexpressible, heavenly love. His repentant confession of cheating the public and his fervent offer of future works of charity were lost on the judgmental Jews that surrounded him at that tree. Blinded to the truth, they missed the miracle of salvation... Zacchaeus had surrendered to his Lord, Christ Jesus!”

“Hey, were you listening?” The old man asked when he saw David’s head turned down, his hands covering his face.

Tears formed in David’s eyes at the telling of this miracle. He could feel Jesus’ presence and love even then, as the old man unwound his story. Suddenly, it was some two thousand years ago and David was there, in that unclean tree, himself unclean, looking into the face of Jesus.  Called down from his perch, he stood before Jesus and the pressing crowd in the town square. The mystery of Scripture revealed in this vivid storytelling had changed this tourist into a witness of salvation. Now, David saw the working of Christ’s divine intrusion at Jericho. The tax collector and he, the sinner, stood together with Christ and understood God’s immeasurable, loving grace. The Savior, on the way to His Cross and the sinner now saved, talked quietly beneath the sycamore tree. Scripture had come alive for this curious tourist. The presence of Jesus overwhelmed him.  His mind could not comprehend the loving grace that was pouring out onto him. He had known Jesus but not like this, ever.  Here was the reality of the Shepherd’s loving mercy, of sins long ago forgiven and forgotten and of God’s incomprehensible love and acceptance.  David felt his heart would explode with joy. 

“Do you need a minute to collect yourself? “the old man inquired. His question brought David back to the setting and he quickly dried his weeping eyes.  He could barely look at the old man.  Choking a reply, he asked, “Please, continue your story.”

David was enraptured by the words of the strange storyteller. He could almost see the stirring reaction of the crowd surrounding Jesus and the tax collector. They were stunned by Jesus inviting himself to the home of a sinner of Zacchaeus. They muttered in self-righteous condemnation of Zacchaeus and ridiculed Jesus for speaking with the sinner. David’s heart ached for Christ. “Can’t they see His heart? Can’t they feel His passionate love of all lost souls?” Had Jesus not fed most of them earlier on the nearby hillsides? Had not many of them walked for days with Jesus and heard him speak truth time and again? Had they not spoken of Jesus at their own family tables? Why do they deny him as the Messiah? Why do they treat him so badly?  Why do so many people still men hate him, deny him or ignore him?”  David softly cried his inquiry to the storyteller.  This tourist no longer cared what others standing nearby might think as they gawked at him. David wanted answers. The time seemed urgent.

“I suppose that hardened hearts were incapable of seeing the very work of God before them,” the old man replied. “By the way, do you know that there is no other biblically recorded case where Jesus invited himself to a home? How about that!  Now, let me tell you more.”

“Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’ confession was not to judge him nor offer approval of his works of charity. I could see that in his face, and he had no word of rebuke for Zacchaeus. I think that he already knew all about the little man in the tree. I was plain to me that Jesus was there to save his soul. There was the open wound of sin and the heavenly care of forgiveness.  Christ needed nothing from Zacchaeus in order to grant him the healing gift of forgiveness and acceptance, where only despise and hate had existed among his own family. Jesus’ divine intrusion at Jericho had great purpose; to show this sinful tax collector and the entire world His incomprehensible love, forgiveness and mercy.” The storyteller again paused to let David absorb the fullness of the message.

The storyteller continued, his voice lowered and deepened. “What Jesus said next shocked the crowd. He declared that Zacchaeus, who had been lost, was a son of Abraham. I know now that it was because of his newfound seed of faith. Had you considered that?” he asked David.

“His newfound seed of faith,” David reflected on those profound words from the storyteller. The term “seed of faith” took on a greater meaning in David’s mind.

 “The crowd really got stirred up by Jesus’ words,” the old man added. “Their self righteousness and spiritual blindness fueled their anger and envy. “Some at that scene would never believe that a tax collector and sinner could be saved. The blessed reality of God’s grace escaped their thinking; was overlooked while selfish anger rose in their hearts. Still others didn’t seem to fully recognize that they had just witnessed a miracle of salvation.  The conversion of Zacchaeus, the saving of the tax collector’s lost soul, was but one testament of Christ’s purpose for coming into the world.  Sadly, over the following years, few of this town’s people ever admitted that the city’s most despised outcast was bound for heaven,” the old man noted.

“Jesus and Zacchaeus went about their way, heckled by the pressing crowd as they tread through the dusty town to the taxpayer’s home. What a conversation the two must have enjoyed.  I can tell you, Zacchaeus was a changed man from that day on.  He never cheated again, and his family accepted him back into their fold. My friend cried bitterly when hearing of Jesus’ crucifixion.  But don’t you just know that the little man jumped with joy when Jesus’ was resurrected and ascended into heaven?  I sure did!” he added.

 Zacchaeus and I became good friends for many years,” declared the old man. We shared many long talks about the love of Jesus and the heavenly reward that awaited us.  For the rest of his life, Zacchaeus couldn’t stop talking about Jesus. I’d say that some folks turned to Christ because of my friends’ witnessing to them.

“Well, that’s my story,” declared the old man as he folded his wrinkled hands and looked deeply into the tear stained eyes of the tourist. The message of what happened here over 2000 years ago belongs to the world.  It’s a picture of Jesus Christ’s love and forgiving grace that we all need to accept….right where we are today.  Everyone is a sinner and needs to turn to Jesus…climb a tree if they have too!  That’s what this bible story is all about. I’m glad that you let me share it with you, David.

David sat a few moments looking at the storyteller, incapable of uttering words. He had listened; he had for a moment, been there with Jesus at the tree; he had been an un-expectant witness to what Scripture had revealed of a divine encounter at Jericho eons ago. His trembling voice allowed no clear speech. He managed only a sincere nod of deep appreciation to his storyteller. The old man understood.

“You asked me earlier if I had become a member of “The Way,” the old man said. Well yes, I did that very day. How could I not? I found myself fully and completely in love with Jesus Christ. I don’t think he saw me near the tree; at least he wasn’t looking my direction. But I felt drawn into his presence, into his love. I knew I needed forgiveness of my own sins. I wanted what Zacchaeus had just received. I knew with certainty that I could never live without Jesus anymore than could the little man who had climbed a tree to see Him. I quickly went to the home of my friend Zacchaeus to surrender fully to my Lord.” Jesus saw me coming. He came to me when I entered the room.  I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to be saved. I understood that Jesus’ divine intrusion into Jericho was for me as well.

The old man turned to David to make his closing remarks. “So, let me ask you…what do you think would have happened if Zacchaeus had held to his pride and ignored the pre-destined call from Jesus? What if he had opted to stay at his tax booth and kept his false religion of stolen money to himself?” he asked.

David started to speak but the storyteller continued without waiting for an answer. “I can see by your face that you would never entertain that thought. Well, let me tell you. No one in Jericho would have known that Jesus could change the most despised man in the city to become his follower. I and others might have missed out on a miracle of salvation that day. Scripture would not have told this story. You would have never read about the miracle of a lost soul converted in Jericho. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did not let that happen. God had a plan; God owns grace and poured it out on us that day. That was the work of God in Jesus Christ! “Do you know the truth of receiving God’s grace, my son?” he asked. His question choked David, so badly that he couldn’t speak.

“Receiving God’s grace has to be a conscious act, a willingness to desire it and allow it to accomplish God’s will in your life.  God owns grace and we are so blessed to receive it from Him.  I think you will have a far better grasp of grace after our visit today.  Well, I see that your bus is loading, so you better get aboard. Let me leave you with this thought: Imagine what a follower of Christ might have said about Zacchaeus at this point: “Today, Zacchaeus, the rich man and sinner has become a child of God.  Oh yes, it was the most splendid day. For, there had been a divine intrusion at Jericho,” declared the old man.

“Thank you for telling me the story,” the David said with some effort, his tears now uncontrollably filled his eyes.  He rose and turned to go to the tour bus. It wasn’t there. He quickly looked back to see that the old man wasn’t there either. All that was before him was the familiar surroundings of his home seen from his favorite chair; his Bible resting in his lap was opened to Luke Chapter 19.

(© 2011 John Miller – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New 2 Blogging

Brother Jay encouraged me to join this site. I write short christian stories and devotionals. I'm very new at this and will appreciate any comments and suggestions, Must learn how to work within the blog site,  to personalize it as I have seen others do so well.

Hands in Prayer

Hands in Prayer
                                                                 Story by John Miller

“Hey, I was asleep! Turn that light out and be quiet! “Frank complained. The middle-aged businessman, in his 2nd day of recovery from hip surgery had quickly earned his reputation as a nuisance. He constantly griped and complained to the nurses that he frequently called to his bedside. The nurse’s ward had soon chosen to ignore the persistent”buzzing” from the patient nicknamed “Bed “B.”

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Parks. It’s about 2:00 am. We will be only a few moments and, yes, we need the light on,” replied one nurse. They worked efficiently and quickly to settle the new patient into bed “A.” One nurse wrote the new patient’s name and a few vitals on the white board opposite his bed.

 “Bill Morris,” so that’s this guy’s name,” Frank noted to himself. “I wonder what’s wrong with him. I sure hope he’s not contagious.” The nurses didn’t respond as they left the room in darkness again.  Frank turned, away hoping to fall asleep. It wasn’t long before Bill’s deep and prolonged moaning woke Frank. “Buzz! Buzz!” His unanswered ringing continued until Frank fell asleep to the incessant nearby moans from bed “A.”

This was Bill’s third hospitalization in weeks. His badly failing heart had landed him in the hospital. The paramedics who had brought him to Emergency early this morning didn’t expect him to come out alive. He had overheard the ER doctor telling his nurse that he had only days to live. Bill almost welcomed death. Life wasn’t worth living but the uncertainty of an afterlife gripped him in lonely fear.  No one in ER looked at Bill’s face except to check the dilatation of his pupils. A constant drool from his quivering lips was ignored; no one saw his mental agony. Morphine was administered and the old patient had been moved to room 104.

The 6:00 am rounds brought the usual traffic of nurses shuffling and talking loudly wakened Frank. The annoying light didn’t help the complainer. He heard unintelligible, weak murmurings from his new room mate. A nurse attending to Bill had opened his privacy curtain to place monitoring equipment at his bedside. Frank leaned up to see a thin, frail figure of a very old man. “What’s wrong with him? He moaned all night!” Didn’t you hear me buzzing you?” Frank protested. “The doctor will see him later today,” was the nurse’s only reply. She pulled the privacy curtain into place as she continued her work on the old man.

“Mr. Morris, I can’t understand you, please speak louder,” Nurse Denton asked. The old man seemed desperate to tell her something but his voice was nothing more than a broken, chattering whisper.  He raised his trembling, bony arms, only to have them fall sharply onto the bed rails. “You’re too weak to swing your arms,” the nurse commented. “Now, you don’t want to bruise your arm and tear your skin or we will have to restrain you.” Bill’s frail fingers grabbed at the cold railing as he pointed an age- bent finger to the ceiling. His gesture went unnoticed, as did his quivering lips. His nurse left to continue her rounds and missed what would be one of Bill’s fleeting moments of lucidity. He wanted someone to listen to him but knew the disappointing experience of abandonment only too well. The old man had spent six years in convalescent homes after a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed. His weak voice was compromised by his badly-slurred speech. By age 75, he had come to know an aching, endless loneliness. The uncaring, dismissive looks of his busy attendants in the home were matched by the hospital staff. Their endless duty was mechanical. Self preservation necessitated that their hearts were detached from such aged patients. Bill’s mind wandered and reality blurred with insanity

The old man’s lucid moments had become brief and were fewer every day. They were a blessing at first, when he could recall memories his wife and family but had become cursed by his rambling, confused and childlike thoughts. He strained to put names to familiar faces that haunted his days. More often than not he got them wrong. No visitors had come for several years, especially after his wife Mary has passed away. Now, his lucid moments brought only mental anguish and anxiety, as he fought to recall his name; his past life. Images of tedious, hard work in home construction invaded his fading mind. Had he been a building contractor or laborer?  His tough, worn and knurled hands were now feeble and trembled badly.  Cursing had been a routine habit at work and his bad temper had isolated him from any true friendships. So, Bill found a friend in the whiskey bottle that for years kept him from his wife and kids. Now, advanced heart disease, terrible chest pain, fever and dehydration were his only friends. They never left him.

The noon meal traffic awakened Bill to rare, lucid moments. “Where am I?” He wondered. The hospital sounds seemed familiar to him. “I’m going to die soon, alone in a hospital.”  He knew his fate. Death was imminent. The TV blared with indistinguishable noises in Bill’s failing ears. Frank ignored the old man’s incoherent murmurings.

“Have I ever known God?”  Bill wondered. Church had not been important to him, although his wife, Mary, had often pleaded with him to go to Sunday service with her. She had worshiped her God, and alone had borne the responsibility for the spiritual upbringing of his four children. Bill’s god had been his work and money and in past years, the bottle. These gods were all gone now. His home and possessions had been sold to fund his extended care in a crowded, smelly home. His meager living accommodations at the home consisted of a twin bed, nightstand, closet, wheelchair and wet diapers.  Bill’s fading pride allowed a stranger’s hands to clean and diaper him but disallowed any pleasure in his surroundings.  There were no visitors.

His ungrateful, seemingly pouting manner with his sons and daughters had driven them away from the old man, years ago. His only communication with them came about through infrequent calls in which he stuttered indiscernibly and scrambled his responses to the few words he could only faintly hear. The deadly silence from both ends of the phone call spoke volumes about his fading worth to his family. He had often slammed the phone receiver down in frustration, so the calls ceased over time.  The eventuality of his remaining fate was cast in the stone-like, frail faces of his aged neighbors, slumped over in wheel chairs parked along the hallways.  His days were numbered and he realized that he would eventually die alone in the hospital. His mind turned to death. That had seemed a long time off for so many years. Now death was at his door. What was going to happen? Who cared? Where was he going when he died? Would he ever see Mary, his wife again?  Had he missed out on salvation, as Mary had so often encouraged him to consider? Was he at hell’s door? He knew nothing about God; nothing about prayer.

“Mary often told me to talk to God,” Bill said to himself. “God will listen if you will just seek His mercy,” she had said. “Was there any point in trying to reach out for God now,” Bill wondered. “Why would he take me to be in heaven with him after all my years of ignoring him, after all the bad things I’ve done?” Bill’s weak eyes looked at his thin and trembling hands. “Mary used to fold her hands in prayer,” he recalled. “She’d pray in silence while I watched TV or read the paper, he recalled.”

For a long while, he looked at his old hands, turning the palms up and over. “These old, worn out hands worked hard for me,” he thought. Mary had said that his hands were God’s gift so that he could provide for his family. “She would praise God for my hands,” he remembered. It seemed silly to him at the time.  “Maybe they are my connection with God,” Bill thought, “maybe I can just pray with them? I don’t know the words to say.”

“God, are you watching,” he asked. I’m going to pray with my hands. I don’t speak too well but you know what I’m doing, don’t you?”

As lunch was served, the attendant left the privacy curtain partly open, so that Frank could see the old man in Bed “A.” He looked up from his own tray to see the old man’s trembling hands turned up and slightly raised, moving in various gestures. “What are you doing, old man?” Frank inquired. There was no answer from Bill. “You better try to eat something,” Frank said. “Are you going to drink that juice?”  Bill wasn’t listening. His weary, drawn eyes were fixed on his feeble hands. “The old fool can’t hear or he’s just loony,” Frank thought as he continued to watch the old man’s antics. “I’ll get his juice when the nurse comes in.”

Bill’s bony arms soon tired of lifting his hands and they fell to his side, just missing his lunch tray. “God, do you seen me showing you my hands?” He asked in a slurred, indistinguishable whisper. “They are calloused from working all those years and my fingernails are all busted from hammers. My knuckles are scarred from saw blades and wood splinters,” he added. “But I’m supposed to thank you, Mary told me.” “Thank you for my good hands, Lord. Is that OK? These old hands did all that you asked me to do to make a living. They got hurt plenty but never wore out. Did you hear me, Lord?” Bill folded his hands like a child in prayer and brought them near his jutting chin, where they trembled badly. “Lord, I feel like you might be listening,” he murmured. His fingers felt his straggly whiskers and stroked his sagging skin. “Lord, I’m old but you know that,” Bill whispered, as tears fell on is cheeks. He made a fist and looked at it. “God, you saw me use my hands to fight some guys on the job when I was drinking. I suppose you don’t like that. I’m sorry, God. No more fists.” Pain overtook Bill’s lucid moment and his mind faded. His incessant, deep moaning was quickly followed by buzzing from Bed “B.”

The lunch trays were taken away and a small amount of Morphine was again administered to the old man. His moaning ceased when sleep overtook him. “Finally! Frank remarked to the nurse, "that crazy old man is quiet.”I had to turn up the TV just to drown out his annoying moans.” The nurse quickly left the room before Frank could ask for Bill’s juice. “Buzz!”

About 5 PM, a nurse came to Bill’s bedside. “Wake up Mr. Morris, the doctor will be in to see you in a while,” she said. She shook the old man until he showed signs of waking. From his near-death stupor, Bill tried to speak but uttered only incoherent sounds. “No need to fuss, Mr. Morris,” she added,” just relax, we have you on fluids because you were badly dehydrated,” she added. Bill tried to reach her as she pulled away. His left arm fell on the bed rail, tearing his thin, aged skin. “Oh, now we’re going to have to bandage that wound,” the nurse protested. “You must not lift your arms so high. You’re too weak, Mr. Morris.” She won’t listen to me,” Bill protested to himself; no one listens!” Dressing his wound, she said “I’ll leave your curtain open so that you can see the clouds. Maybe that will brighten your day.”

Frank complained,” are you going to leave that curtain open all day? That old man can’t see my bed, let along anything outside the window!” His words were wasted on the back of the departing nurse. “Buzz!”

“God, are you still there? Bill murmured. “I slept a while, I guess.” He returned to his hands of prayer. “What can I do to pray with my hands, Lord?” he asked.  “Did I fold them right for prayer? Should I rest them on my chest,” Mary sometimes prayed aloud, with her hands folded on her chest. Was that OK with you, Lord?” “Do you know what the doctor is going to tell me today?”  “Lord, I’m too old for much fussing in hospitals. My pain is so hard. Can I just go home with you?” he asked. “Mary often said that you were merciful, is that true? Will you show me mercy and forgive me my sins?” he asked. Saying that, Bill wrenched his bony hands together in mental anguish. “I’ve sinned plenty and I’m sorry, God. “Oh, I remember as a child, hearing about Jesus on the Cross. Was he really your son? Did he really die for the sins of man? Did he take a thief to heaven with him, as Mary told me? Lord, I never read the Bible. Mary often told me that she believed in Jesus’ finished work on the cross to save sinners who were sorry for their sins against you. Is that what I’m supposed to do now? Believe? I want to. God, can you help me believe in your Son, Jesus? God, can you see my hands praying?” Bill lifted his thin, tired arms higher than he had in days. “Is it too late for me, Lord?” Bill pleaded, as he twisted his wrists and flailed his arms wildly, moaning aloud. 

 “Hey, old fella, you’re going to hurt yourself again, Frank told him. Bill didn’t respond but continued to flail his arms. Frank buzzed for the nurse. For once, she immediately responded. “What do you need, Mr. Parks? She asked over the speaker at Frank’s bedside.  “I don’t need anything but the old man is hurting himself again. He’s really banging his arms on the bedrail. You better come take a look.”

“Mr. Morris, we can’t have you injuring your arms,” the attending nurse said, “I’m going to place them in restraints to protect you.” Bill’s wrists were tied close at his sides, just inches from the bedrails. Tears streamed from his milky-gray eyes and his lips chattered as he tried to plead for release. His voice was indiscernible to the nurse who busily went about her duty. Bill moaned loudly from deep within; his apparent means of fervent prayer now taken from him, “God, did you see me praying? What am I going to do now?” He moaned loudly, until his voice sank to a chattering, crying murmur.

“Hush, old man, and try to get some sleep,” Frank remarked. “You’ll be OK.  “Besides, when the doctor comes in, he’ll probably take you out of the restraints. “You got any family?”

Bill thought he felt the soft brush of an angel’s wings, as his mind drifted away. He did not answer Frank.

Sometime later, the doctor arrived to examine Bill. “Mr. Morris, wake up, Mr. Morris” the doctor prodded the old man, and taking his pulse, found none. Bill had gone home.

In the heavenly realms, Dimas, the Thief on the Cross smiled knowingly and joined the heavenly host of angels in joyful songs of praise to the One True God of 2nd Chances.