One Will Be Burning
He shifted the staff in his hand as he made his way up the mountain, navigating paths as familiar to his eyes as the reflection that met his gaze in a mirror each morning. Aged by erosion and stiff winds, the red clay path wound through a harsh wilderness of unforgiving vistas and brutal extremes; over gradual ascents and through brackened plateaus. For forty years he had now shepherded in this country, watching over flocks that belonged to another as his life endured the same sad erosion that marked this expansive terrain. Surely what wind and water does to sand and stone, time and life had done to his battered heart.
He was so tired – beset with a weariness that transcended muscle and bone to set its teeth into his very soul. He had long-since accepted that his days on earth were likely numbered, and was oddly consoled to find that the coming of death would not be as unwelcome as he had once imagined. Though his body was still fit for a man of his advanced years, this was not uncommon for men of that time. Indeed, his father-in-law had already passed the century-mark with little fanfare - which was a menacing thought that released an involuntary groan of protest as it navigated the transom of his mind.
“God’s will be done,” he finally muttered after a quiet moment of reflection, his countenance pinched with pained restraint.
Eighty – the number still seemed ludicrous as he mulled it over with morbid fascination. Could he really be that old? Somewhere overhead he could hear the quiet bleating of a lamb that had wandered away from the flock; its sorrowful moans lost on the wind like a spectral voice from the past. His father-in-law’s servants had remained at the base of the mountain in order to tend to the rest of the flock as he ventured forth - as it was he who was responsible for any sheep that went astray. All he needed to further complicate matters was the loss of a man, so he left them behind with strict orders that no one was to follow as he shouldered a bag and started his climb.
A livid sun was settling over the mountains that stretched to the west, turning orange as it cast a final gaze over God’s creation and prepared to yield the skies to its nocturnal subordinate. Faithful to its charge, the moon was already hung overhead - a shadowy outline visible in the fading blue above.
The lesser son, a voice in his mind taunted as he considered the moon… Surely you can appreciate it's plight...
The old man scowled at the voice in his head before he even registered doing so. This voice was a constant companion – an antagonist that had for many years accompanied him on these long and harrowing journeys into the wild. This was the voice that had driven him from his family as a young man; an outcast and exile to live among strangers for the rest of his days. It was this inner accuser whose snarling vitriol rose to meet him with each failure in order to remind him of how inconsequential his life had become – pointing out the veritable wasteland that was once his ordination and calling. It was this voice that led the chorus of howls in his head – a cascade of cruel laughter at the delusions of grandeur that he once espoused.
“Puh-Pitiful man!” They often called with mirthless glee, “What a fool you are – do you see what you’ve become? Where are the ones who said you were special? Where are those who marked the day of your birth? And what did your birth give us but another smelly shepherd?”
The old man tried to bat the voice away and turned his gaze upward and slightly to the right - where he knew he would find another meandering path snaking off like a barren stream-bed. From somewhere in that direction had come another cry of the bleating lamb – scared and calling foolishly out to the myriad of predators that prowl these lands.
“Where is the great wealth that once graced your ‘noble’ brow? What would your father-in-law think if he knew that you were a murderer?”
“You’re a fool! You were a prince living in opulence and glory – your every day was met with luxuries unending as a member of the most powerful dynasty in the world! Look at what you have chosen for yourself – for your family. You have nothing – even the sheep you herd belong to someone else! Has there ever been anyone who has thrown so much away? Is this how you repay your loving God? And what of those ‘brothers’ of yours whom you were so sure to set free… where are they now?”
The old man paused to catch his breath and felt the sting of tears – he had to admit it - that one hurt...
“I was defending my brothers,” he muttered defensively – apparently to no one but arid winds and the bleating lamb.
“Well done!” the accuser echoed back in his head, “Well done indeed! You saved a man from a beating and plunged the rest of your brethren into forty more years of slavery!”
And with this the chorus of laughter resumed in his mind – a howl of unrestrained cruelty as his chest heaved with sorrow.
In every good lie there is always a kernel of truth. Even as he registered the lie the old man could not remove his internal gaze from the kernel of truth that made it such a brazen agony. What if he had only restrained himself that day? Might have things been different? Did he really fail as bad as it feels he did? Is he really nothing more than a walking piece of refuse who might be doing the world a favor by hurling himself off one of the towering cliffs rising around him? With a rinsing breath he finally resumed his ascent in the general direction of the bleating lamb.
“I could not live in palaces while my brothers were in chains!” He growled, “I would rather have died!”
The answer he received to this assertion was another chorus of cruel laughter.
“The old fool still thinks he did something heroic – forty years of dodging sheep dung and he still thinks himself a noble man!”
“Yes, do tell us about your vision, man of God – p-p-pleaase d-d-doooo!”
More laughter – and now the old man felt his dander rising as the taunts turned to a sensitive area for which there was no remedy. His hand tightened on the wooden staff until it became a white-knuckled fist as his pace quickened along the path. A speech impediment had made him a man of few words over the years, and as he considered this taunt knew that another kernel of truth had been hurled at his aching heart. The thought that he could have ever contributed to his people's freedom as impaired as he was had to be the greatest of all his many delusions. He was indeed a fool, rejected and cast aside – abandoned to live and die in this foreign land away from his people and estranged from his family. All the sins of his youth now effervesced before him – all the things he had ever done that he knew would be displeasing to Adonai before he finally turned to the one true God. Were the many sacrifices not enough to assuage his guilt? How much longer would he be condemned to wander the wilderness before God drew him into His good graces once more?
“You are rejected – God has already shown you what He thinks of you, fool!”
The old man tried to choke back another wave of tears. With a hand that was calloused by a lifetime of toil he brushed his cheeks and set his jaw to go on. The sun was now sinking into the mountains – a great red eye that foretold the coming of night and the certain loss of a lamb whose calls seemed to be nearing as his ascent wore on.
What on earth…?
He came to such an abrupt halt that the sweat-slicked hand with which he was clutching the staff slid several inches down its gnarled shaft. The old man stood weak-kneed and gape-mouthed, staring in wonder at an anomaly that had suddenly come into view on the side of the path.
What at first glace seemed like a simple brush fire was now turning him cold with numinous awe as the strangeness of the phenomena bowled him over. Several paces to his right stood a tall bush that was little more than brush – an amalgamation of wispy branches that should have lasted no more than a few seconds in the snare of such flame. Yet there it burned – its branches consumed with fire and yet green with foliage as the flames raged against the swirling winds that rose to lap at it. Overcome with wonder, all thoughts of the bleating lamb instantly fled his mind, and even the antagonist's ghastly horde seemed to have taken its leave. He knew in an instant – even before a booming baritone voice called him to a halt and bid him remove his sandals…
…everything is changed.
Have you ever wondered if God is done with you? Consider this man the next time you write yourself off as a failure – this 80-year-old shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks, wasting away in the wilderness with nothing but disillusionment and heartache ringing in his ears. He lived for decades with the terrible knowledge that his loved ones in Egypt were being brutally oppressed as they awaited a deliverance that seemed like it would never come.