Uncle Zach (again)

Zachariah

In this Advent season, I am reposting this piece.  You can listen to a wonderful  audio version of this story, narrated by Boyd Barrett, a dear friend.  You may also want to explore his other podcasts – you’ll be glad you did.

 

“Tell me again, Uncle Zach, tell me the story of the angel, when you were in the temple.” Jesus is staying over for a few days and is helping his uncle with his work.

John rolls his eyes and looks at his cousin. Not again. John is intimidated by the story. It is his father’s story, but the weight of it rests on him. ‘The spirit and power of Elijah’ the angel had said. Sometimes, in the quiet, John felt inside himself for the stirrings of this prophecy, fingering his own soul, looking for signs of Elijah or of any real power at all. Nothing. So, he hides a secret fear that he will fail the prophecy. Hearing the story only makes it worse.

Jesus and John are eleven, old enough to know that their stories are both unique, not old enough to understand what that difference may yet mean.

Zechariah begins the story and Jesus settles in beside him. John is across the room, finishing up his chores so he can leave as quickly as possible. They have both heard the story before, but not often. It is hard on a family to hold the weight of such a story and Jesus’ siblings aren’t very fond of it, or of the other story that follows. But today it is just Zechariah and Jesus and John inside, so the time seems right to tell it again, in detail.

Zechariah takes a deep breath and begins. When he starts the story he is looking straight at Jesus. “You know how it works,” he says. “When it is time for my division to bring the incense into the Holy Place, we draw lots. It is our way of letting God pick the servant. It is an honor for the lot to fall to you. And when I was chosen, I felt, as I always do, a slight rush of pleasure that I am the one that God wants this day. God’s call to the priestly tribe is a precious gift. God’s call to a single one . . . to me . . . or to you . . . is . . . a wonder.”

By now Zechariah is no longer looking at the boys. John and Jesus are both listening, pulled by what he is saying, by its echo in their hearts. There is deep quiet in the room. “I went into the Holy Place, into that place that God has chosen to be present. You think you are prepared when you go in – but the Presence hits you and, every time, you know that there is no way that you will ever really be ready for that place. It always takes me a moment. Like letting your eyes adjust to the darkness when you enter a cave on a bright day – or more – how your eyes adjust when you go back into daylight from the cave. So, I wait at the doorway for my soul to catch its breath. And then, when I find my legs again, when I can move, I take the incense to the altar.”

“The Presence is most strong that day. It is as if I am not the only one touching the Presence. The Presence is always magnified in my heart when someone next to me is touching it, as well. It was that sense, but more, that day. As I approach the altar, I suddenly know why. There is an angel standing there. Once he appears, he is powerfully real . . . as if I were the vision and he the substance . . . but even more, he is touching the Presence so powerfully that I am overcome.   I start to tremble, almost to fall. He reaches out and catches my arm. He takes the incense from my hand and places it on a bench next to the altar and tells me not to be afraid. I wonder why he says that . . . it’s not fear that I feel. In fact, I hardly am aware of myself enough to feel anything at all. But his words draw my attention back to myself and I can see that I am trembling.”

“We sit together on the bench, with the incense between us. He looks me in the eye and waits till I have calmed myself a bit. Then he speaks to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.’

“He says my name. My name. He was waiting there specifically for me. Now I do start to feel the fear. He sees my eyes widen and he takes my hand, “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.”

“Now, boys, you have to know that I had not really been praying when I came into the temple. I had been too busy with the preparation, with the responsibility. I was sitting there, wondering what prayer he was talking about.”

“‘Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son,’ he says, quietly, waiting for the words to sink in.”

“My heart shakes itself. Oh, that prayer! The prayer that was on my lips for so many years, but had slowly, with age, become just an echo in the deep recesses of my heart.” Here Zechariah stops and looks at John, saying, without words, how much the boy had been their prayer. John looks away, feeling the weight of one more burden, one more way to disappoint.

“And then,” Zechariah continues, still looking at John “then the angel smiles. ‘You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.’ The angel bends forward. There is a joyous urgency to his manner. ‘Your son will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.’ By this time the words are feeling triumphant.”

“My own heart is on a double track. Part of it surges with new hope, eager to receive this news and take it to Elizabeth; thrilled to think that the power of the prophets might return to our poor land. The other part, well, I’m not sure. How can I be a part of such a plan? We both are old. And Elizabeth . . . oh, my . . . if I were wrong, and raised this hope to dash it once again . . . I’m not sure she – or I – could bear it. So, I yearn for the promise while I fumble in fear that it just cannot be so. ‘Are you sure?’ I grasp the angel’s sleeve. ‘I’m not . . . Elizabeth is not . . . we are both too old.’”

“The angel pulls away, looking suddenly stern. ‘Am I sure? Am I sure? I AM is sure, is giving you this promise! How can you doubt the word of God?’”

“I am looking at my hands. ‘It’s not that I doubt God; it’s that I cannot trust myself. I know, too well, my frailty.’”

“Gently now, the angel takes my hands. ‘It is that very frailty that reveals the power of God. Can you not see? It is the barren womb that shows God’s power most clearly. Will you fail to go to your wife? Will she fail to conceive? Will the baby refuse to be born, to grow? Do what you can do. God will do the rest. Your very frailty will show God’s presence in this gift. You were not chosen at random, but carefully nurtured into your role. And now, because you need to see how frailty speaks, you will be mute until his birth.’”

“Some thought it was a punishment for my lack of faith, that I was mute. But really, boys, there were no words to capture what I’d seen. Who would have believed me, anyway? My loss of words told them I had seen a vision, yet it let me save my secret for Elizabeth. We savored that time alone with the secret of God’s power, till it could be hidden no longer.”

“Your circumcision, John, released my tongue, released the story into your life. I know you feel its weight. But do not fear. It’s like the angel said, frailty does not matter. God requires nothing but our obedience. You do what you can do. Then, you wait to see what happens. You let God shine through your frailty. And you rejoice.”

Zechariah is smiling. John comes round the table to stand for just a moment beside his father. Then he pokes Jesus in the arm and chases him out the door. They shake off the quiet and melt back into their eleven-year-old lives.

 12 5 03

[photo cropped from ‘the Rabbi’ by Rafal Kiermacz under cc 2.0 ]

a different view

overwhelmedI am feeling overwhelmed and lost in the stacks of things to do. My day is pressing down upon me and in response I am deeply tired. I cannot find the energy to dig myself out of this hole, so that I can even begin my day.

I come to my meadow discouraged. Too much to do, to late to even hope to do it well. Now, all I seem to have left is the fear of total embarrassment to keep me going. The best I can do is barely enough. I wander down the hill, scrubbing my toes in the short grass, which is dried and brown. My sweater is drawn up around my shoulders, more to find comfort in its bulk than as a reaction to the cool of the day.

I find a smooth, round stone by the edge of the stream and sit down, dropping my head into my hands. I sigh deeply and shake my head. I’d like to curl up in a fetal position and sleep away the day, the chores, the responsibilities before me. But I cannot. They will not go away.

Slowly the sound of the brook fights its way into my consciousness and the crisp brown reality of the winter grass shows itself to me in intricate patterns at my feet. There are things beyond me in this world, though I don’t always raise my eyes to see, so self-absorbed am I.

So I settle in upon that rock and try to broaden my vision of the meadow, try to move my focus beyond my self pity. As I do so, tiny signs of life become evident. A field mouse runs across the path and finds a discarded shaft of grain to carry home. A tiny grass flower has forgotten its seasons and struggles to grow in a sunny spot beside the stream. Small signs of life. I am grateful for these signs of hope, yet my heart has not been lifted from its sigh.

I sit a while longer and an angel appears beside me to guide me to the well. The angel is a child, younger, more timid, than the angels I have encountered before. Even his robe does not fit right. It’s sleeves dangle over his fingers and the shoulders droop.   He pulls up the robe to keep from tripping over it on the way back to the well and scruffy tennis shoes can be seen beneath its hem.

No so intimidated by this angel, I reach and take his hand We walk together to the well. As we approach, I can see that Jesus is seated on the side of the well. He is facing off to one side and is ministering to the crowd which surrounds him. There is a whole variety of life before him and around the well.   Older men and younger travelers, men and women, who have stopped to renew themselves for their journey. Families sit together at the well, children leaning on their parent’s arms, swinging their feet absently to pass the time.

My escort stops a good distance from the well and takes off the robe. Its reminds me of a child from a nativity play, taking off his father’s bathrobe. The boy is wearing a wrinkled tee-shirt and jeans. He smiles at me and goes off to find his seat in the crowd. I pick up the robe and put it on, tying the sash around my waist. It doesn’t fit me very well either.

I walk toward the well and take a seat on a stone bench at the edge of the circle. Jesus continues to talk to the crowd, to touch the heads of small children as they wander up to the well and play in the open space at his feet.

His words do not sound urgent or hurried, but they are captivating. It is as if he speaks and the reality of this world becomes just a bit clearer. His words are not begging words of should and ought and urgent supplication, but being words of the reality which we seldom see. He reveals the parts of heaven which brush into our days and which we can take hold of and weave into the picture of who we are. He speaks his own spirit into our hearts and we feel an echo there, an answer which whispers a fervent “yes” to what he says we can be.

I am fed slowly by the words, each a drop of strength in the reservoir which was so empty. They fall onto my ears, into my soul.

Then he rises to go and looks around for his outer robe. It’s not on the well beside him, where he had placed it. The child who guided me here sneaks a look at me and wrinkles up his face in a silly grin, shrugging his shoulders. The robe I wrapped around me belongs to the Lord. Quickly I take it off and fold it over my arm. Tentatively, I make my way to the well and offer it to Jesus. He chuckles and takes the robe from my hands. Then he swings the robe up, as if to place it around his shoulders, but instead it envelopes the whole crowd. His robe wraps us all in warmth and hugs us in a collective union to himself.

Wrapped in his love, I think I can find the strength to enter my day. I do not feel triumphant, not even sure that I can accomplish what I have placed before myself to do. But I know that his word is slowly feeding my soul and bringing pieces of a different reality into my world of desires and fears.  So I am grateful, almost content, as I return to my office and my tasks.

1 24 95

[image modified from photo by amenclinicsphotos ac per cc 2.0]

 

 

sometimes

open palmWhen you sit
Quietly
With your hands open in your lap
Sometimes
You can manage
To open your mind
As well.

You will begin to see beyond
The boundaries
You have accepted
As true.

And if you are quiet
And open
For just a bit longer
Sometimes
Your heart will open, too
And you will find
That there are no boundaries
For love.

It will find you
And fill you
And then
You will be full.

Of course,
You cannot hold it all.
You will overflow.
Love is like that.
Isn’t it?

[photo by Molly per cc 2.0]

Hollows

cave on the beach
In this quiet hollow,
In this deep, still, place
My heart at first is quieted.
It gives up the rumble of my days
And the persistent picking of my thoughts
And the undertow of worry.
All these are splashed upon the shore like foam.
They dissolve upon the great beach of your
presence.
Until, at last, they simply flow in and out without
much noise.
They come and go, but do not call to me.

I find, at last a quiet space to be.
And there I sit and listen to my heart.
And to your whispered presence
In its hollows.

2 27 01

[photo by Kate McDonald per cc 2.0]

breathing lessons

meditationTo focus the mind on the rhythm of breath
Seems, at first, a distraction –
Working to set the ‘right’ rhythm
Fighting off the random thoughts that assail my peace.

Struggling to be still – it seems a contradiction.

Or a koan, perhaps.

Wearing myself out with struggle
So that I must put down the battle
Out of sheer fatigue.
And find … what?
You, perhaps, … and me.

[image by Peter earwig per cc 2.0]

a Narnia encounter (3)

along the beach[This is a continuing meditation. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.]

I wait … and fidget … and wait some more.

Too often my mind rushes ahead of my day and I leave the real moments of my life behind. I have not learned to stay put; to live life as it comes, rather than waiting to live until my plans develop. (Which, of course, they never quite do.)

I think of the giant who brought me here as a simple soul, but he is wiser than I have realized. He seems content … or rather, he seems quite pleased … to do his part and trust that the rest will unfold as it should. That is not so easy for me.

And what is my part in this adventure? All I’ve done to this point is to ride in his pocket and sleep beside the fire. Oh, and keep the fire going in spite of fear. That, too. But what will I be asked to do from here? That is the part of the fear I have not quite vanquished.

So, I wait and I fidget.

I get up to walk along the beach, along the smooth wet edge close to the water. I watch the faint bubbles that form as my feet press the water out of the sand with each step. I breathe in deeply and smell the salt air. The smell of the salt tells me that this must be an inlet from the sea.

As I walk, I come upon a large flat rock that juts out into the water – a finger of rock that reaches out from a large rocky cliff that towers up above. I crawl out on the rocky ledge and let my feet dangle. The slap of the waves reaches to my feet with every undulation. There is a rhythm there that soothes me. I am caught and released with each pull of the waves, as if the sea, itself, might be having a wordless conversation with my soul.

Perhaps, if I can just release my urgency, I can learn to live in simple trust, like my giant friend.

My toes catch a strand of seaweed.

Suddenly the weed climbs up my leg and tugs me into the water. I try to hold on to the rock, but this all happens too fast and I am pulled down, down, into the cold. After my initial panic I notice that there is an opening under the rock I had been sitting on – an entrance to a cave that, surprisingly, is lit within. I reach down and loosen the seaweed from my leg and move forward into the cave. It isn’t long until I come out into an inner cavern, with its own beach, its own hidden cove.

I sit for just a moment on a twin rock on that shore. I look around and listen for any clues about what will happen next.

And then, beside me on the rock, there is a presence. It is a presence that I know. Not so clear, perhaps, as the voices on the wind … but very definitely there. I take in a breath, slowly, and let it out, letting my soul settle a bit into this presence.

“Hello,” I venture.

“Hello,” is the whispered reply.

“Is this the meeting I was called to?”

“It is one such meeting. There are many.”

“Ah.” I wait a bit. “It takes a lot to get my attention, doesn’t it?”

The presence smiles, though I don’t know how I know this. I have no real vision of this One. But there is a smile, and a reply, “It does take a bit, sometimes. That is the way of things. It is so easy to get lost in the rush of activity.”

“There is so much to do,” I try to explain. “There are so many people who depend upon me.”

“Ah,” again the smile. The very silence helps me see the silliness of this response.

“I don’t know quite how to do this.” I try again.

“Ah,” another silence and then the presence reaches out to my hand, which is resting upon the rock, wrapping me in a warmth that travels up my arm into my heart. “Knowing is not always necessary.”

I try to be content with this answer. I try to remember the peaceful acceptance of the giant. I try, but to no avail. I don’t know what to do with the quiet. It always seems that my mind wanders off somewhere on its own, or chatters on with anxious energy. I keep trying to pull it back to where we are.

The presence begins to sing, slowly, softly. It is as if I only hear it with my soul. Yet, its rhythms begin to smooth the wrinkles in my heart, the furrows on my brow. I lean back upon the rock and let the song sweep over me. Each measure is a pulse of steady comfort.

When I wake, later, I can tell I have been here quite a while. The presence has gone … or at least is not so palpable. I feel deeply rested – a feeling that I have not felt for a long, long time. It is as if I have put down a burden that I did not know I was carrying. I sigh. I smile. I roll over and slip back into the water and find way back to the beach of the giant’s island. I sit in the sun, feet in the sand of that beach, at peace.

Now, at last, I may be ready for the meeting the giant heard about on the wind. Ironically, I am ready, but no longer anxious, no longer feeling restless.

Because I am ready, I can wait.

[This soul story continues, here.]
[image by Susan Murtaugh per cc 2.0]

Precipice

dandelion heartI sigh.
I gather myself for a moment’s centering.
I wait upon the edge of quiet
Letting my soul seep in.

Each breath draws in.
Each breath empties out.
The quiet deepens.
I release my fluttering thoughts into the void.

I refuse to ride my thoughts away.
I let them go, without me
And am surprised to see that I remain.
They do not hold the deepest me.

You do.

I do not know why that is a surprise
But I smile as I snuggle down into your lap.
I rest my heart upon your whisper
And turn my cheek to your caress.

Your lullaby is a wordless melody
Sung in the quiet forever
Only audible in stillness
But ever there.

I rouse myself enough to wonder
If my bliss seems boring to the more adventurous souls.
You croon and hold me close
And my heart beats with excitement.

This quiet moment is, indeed, but foreplay …

[the photo is my own]