Epiphany: a story

Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar

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(Picture from The Life of Jesus, painted by Paul Forsey)

It was a black night. Nothing lit our Eastern sky, nothing. The tiny pinpricks of starry light were almost blotted out by the inky darkness.

Nevertheless, our team was out there on the dunes, peering into our telescopes, occasionally lighting a small candle to jot notes and diagrams onto our parchments.

It was a still night, which was a good thing. Sand grit can be a problem if it’s blown into our equipment and ink. Caspar was sitting in the middle of a huge groundsheet, gazing across to the horizon. It was so quiet that, even though I had my back to him, I heard it when he stopped breathing. He wasn’t dead, just dead surprised.

I turned and said, “Cas?” and then looked where I thought he was looking.

I answered his unspoken question. “I think it is.”

“I’m going to make a light” he said, “you get Melchior.”

I set out over the dunes. With no illumination I stumbled along. Once I turned to look behind me and saw Caspar’s small candle. But behind him was a rising glow from near the horizon. I finally found Mel; actually I stumbled onto him. He cursed as I landed on him, causing his ‘scope to drop to the ground.

“Look” I said, and standing close behind him with my arm alongside his head, I pointed to the west. He moved slightly to follow my direction. “Yes…” he murmured.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking” I asked.

“I think I am, Balthazar!” he replied, and I heard the twinkle in his eyes.

We ran then, back to Caspar, who had been consulting the charts. He was fairly jumping out of his skin! And that’s not bad for an eighty year old astronomer.

This was the beginning of our journey westward. That little star, rising up into our world, had been predicted for centuries. But not as headline news in the Astronomers Of The East Gazette. No. It was hidden in the historical parchments of our discipline, to be discovered through intense cross referencing and study. A group of us were hoping and waiting for its appearance in our lifetime. And here it was!

The following days were a buzz of preparations and talking. Our colleagues agreed that Mel, Caspar and I should be the ones to meet the promised King. The King born somewhere to the west of us. The King whose star we had seen rising in the darkness.

And this King would be worshipped with gifts.

So a committee was formed to find appropriate gifts. The gift registrars. They consulted the astronomical charts too, for clues. Each gift would be fraught with meaning. Finally they came on the night before we were to set out. Three packages were presented to us.

“This one is the only gift we could give to a new King” they said. “It is the ultimate symbol of power and majesty.” Caspar stood beside me and whispered breathlessly “Gold!”

“This one” another registrar said, holding up a small box, “was a tricky one. Something in our research suggested this new King is also Godly. So in this box is the very precious frankincense.” He handed it to Melchior.

A third registrar stepped forward.

“Finally, our last gift.” A few of the other members of the committee shuffled uneasily and looked down, as if they weren’t too sure about this choice of a gift.

“Myrrh.” And it was offered to me.

An explanation was called for. The registrar continued. “It’s traditionally used as an embalming agent. The committee thought it appropriate as all kings eventually die, and this new King will deserve the very best of burials. Although” he added,

“this King is a God, so it should not be necessary. However, on the off chance…..” He was now clearly out of his depth so I stepped forward and took the package from him. He looked glad to be rid of it.

The journey continued. The next morning we were assisted onto our camels and the whole assembly of astronomers were there to see us off.

Our College president handed us the scrolls containing copies of the prophesies of the Hebrew Daniel, concerning the King we were seeking. And so we left our home in the East.

It was together boring and exhilarating to be travelling.

At night we pitched our tent, found our telescopes and studied the sky as we had always done. But we hardly needed the telescope to see that Star; it became larger and brighter every night. It was our signpost, our route map, our light for our path.

During the days I reread Daniel’s prophesy. He was an alien in our country, captured over 500 years ago and brought to Babylon as booty.

He wrote about his God and a plan to bring a saving Christ into the world. The ‘Son of Man coming from heaven’.

When we reached the region of Palestine we made our way straight to the city of Jerusalem. I was glad to stop there. Beyond this country was the Mare Nostrum sea and I didn’t like sailing much. I preferred the ships of the desert – camels, and the waves of bare sand.

At the palace the guards brought us before the ruler King Herod. He listened to the reason for our coming, and looked puzzled. “No new kings here!” he blustered.

“A new born King, a baby perhaps?” I suggested.

Now he looked positively scary. “No newborns around here!! “

Melchior offered another idea, “we believe him to be the king of the Jews.”

“What?!!” roared Herod. “I am the king of the Jews!”

And then “Send for my advisors, and those magicians I have!”

They came, and they confirmed what we had said. In the town of Bethlehem the Christ would be born.

Now Herod ordered us out of the room while he conferred with his advisors.

We sat in a tiny anteroom, cooling our heels. “I don’t like that man much,” said Caspar, “can’t we just go over to that town and check it out for ourselves?”

But then the door opened and we were called back in.

Herod’s plan went like this:

We were to go to Bethlehem, find the baby King, and then return to Herod and give him the precise location.

It was something about the way his moustache twitched when he spoke that made me wonder. His whole demeanour had changed since before, but that moustache was twitching! I didn’t trust him.

Well, we found Bethlehem, and we found the King. Our star continued to lead us until it stopped over an ordinary-looking house in a plain old street. No palace, no royal crib, no red carpet.

We felt a tiny bit overdressed for the occasion, and the gifts we brought seemed a tad too grand for such an ordinary child, but we knelt before him. His parents didn’t blink. It was as if they knew His importance, as if they understood Who he really was.

I bowed deeply.

I offered the jar of myrrh to the child’s mother.

In my heart I felt some flutter of recognition as I gazed upon the small boy sitting on his mother’s knee.

The star had brought me to Him. He was the end of my journey.

Hetty Stok,

Epiphany, 2019

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Coming Home

My body clock is slowly re-establishing itself.  Eight in the morning no longer resembles midnight. However there is that strange feeling that one has when one is back at work – back in the hurly burly one left a few weeks ago, when you ask yourself, “Did the last 6 weeks really happen?” There are photos and souvenirs of other countries and other places – exotic and unfamiliar but one is back in a world that hasn’t changed.  It is an unusual and unsettling feeling but not a disagreeable one. For me it is a reminder that I have had an opportunity to get insights into other worlds and places.

This time it was probably a bit more bizarre as our two-part holiday involved Spain and Norway, and walking and ship cruising. The contrasts could not have been more distinct. The only common theme was “cold”. Europe has been very cold this April. Northern Spain was not that much different to Norway except in Norway there was more sun!

Now here I am in a creative writing class encouraging students to use their life experiences as spring boards for writing. My life is continuing as before – except there was that 6 week hiatus that changed everything – I think.

 

 

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Madrid and Mission part 2m

As I have mentioned previously, Hetty and I are contemplating “mission” as I come to the close of my paid working life. What should/could it look like? Where? How? Why? Questions come pouring out every time we consider it.

We started thinking about Spain many years ago when a man offered me a tract in Guell Park in Barcelona. I dismissively said that I couldn’t read Spanish. He replied, “I have one in Eengleesh sir.” I had to take it then. Later when I looked at it I found that it came from an evangelical group in Barcelona. I returned to the man, told him that I was a Christian, thanked him and said I would pray for Christianity in Spain. We have prayed for Spain ever since and when we visit I make it a practice to visit churches and pray for the leaders and congregatIon.

Spain has been in our hearts ever since. We return when we can, we pray for it often and we find there is a draw that is greater than the food, climate and culture. We like the people. There are problems however; the biggest being that we don’t speak Spanish beyond “tapas”, “queso” and “paella.”

So we are at the point now of badgering God about the meaning of all this. We have discovered that there are many vibrant Christians seeking a renewal/revival in Spain. Our question: is there a role for us in this?

Plaza Espana on a Sunday afternoon

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My Kind of Cruising

I have never been a fan of ocean cruising. So for the first time, excepting ferry crossings and my five week trip to Australia, we are taking a 12 day cruise. It is not , however, what one of my fellow passengers called “Heidi-land.” I didn’t ask for a definition but I got his drift. He was describing the modern cruise ship.

Our boat was built in 1965 but there is no flashy aluminium or gold. There are no pools, evening entertainment, bingo, pokies and the rest. There is plenty of wood and brass. It is a working vessel that loads and unloads by crane. None of this fancy “roll on roll off.” There are no stabilisers so it gets quite a roll on the open ocean. Although you aren’t allowed in the wheel house you can stand next to it and get a captain’s eye view.

The MS Lofoten is the last ship of an era and everybody on board knows it and is enjoying this nod to the past. The added benefit is the passing parade of spectacular Norwegian scenery and the regular stops at towns and cities.

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Is this something for me?

Written a few days ago.

You may be wondering to yourself, is walking the Camino and staying in Albergues something for me? Let me relate two in incidents.

Last night as I was lying in bed, awake, but with my eyes closed, Hetty witnessed the young woman in the bed next to me getting changed. Her back was facing me but I was oblivious. She then changed for bed, undressing to her g-string briefs. Hetty said the next morning that if my eyes had been open she would have leapt across me to protect my eyes.

The next day, as pilgrims were coming in from their day’s walk, a group of middle aged, portly Frenchmen came into our dorm. They insisted in walking around in their jocks with bellies spilling over. Or as one brother-in-law oft repeated, “there was a large veranda over the tool shed.” The two young women in the beds across from mine didn’t know where to look. Hetty was ready to throw up. One man didn’t get back into pants for ages. The young women fled well before that to save their eyesight.

The accomodation is cheap and there are great moments when you meet people and chat with them but there are also times when one’s sensitivities are pushed to the limit. For me, I would do it again even if my wife has to hurl herself over me to protect me.

Seminario Menor in Santiago but without the g-strings and bellies.

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Madrid and Mission part 1

We have spent the last two days in Madrid looking at the possibility of future “mission” work, either in a church or school or both. We have come to the conclusion that church attendance in Spain, as with most European countries, is very low. There is still a strong hold that Catholic traditions have on behaviour but this doesn’t translate into a gospel empowered lifestyle.

There are bright spots. There are Catholic priests who are trying to shake up the church. A version of the Alpha course in Spanish is being used. There are small groups of evangelicals trying to make a difference. But in a population of 47 million people these are only pin pricks of light.

One of those pinpricks is Life International School, currently housed in rooms previously used by doctors at the ground floor level of an apartment complex. The 14 students between 3 and 5 are taught in the English language from a Christian Worldview. Lives and families are being changed. There are plans to obtain land and build but even bigger dreams to equip teachers and inspire others to set up schools. There are hopes to engage local parents and other adults through English conversation classes with a clear Christian perspective.

The staff at this school come from the US, Canada and Russia. They are an amazing group of people who have responded to God’s call.

We have been inspired and humbled by what we have seen and heard. The commitment and sacrifice is genuinely amazing. Our challenge now is discern what God is saying to us

An interesting TGC article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-gospel-in-spain/

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Travelling with Grandkids … not really … well, really.

This is the first time we have ever gone travelling as grandparents. In the past I have had to cool my heels outside postcard and souvenir shops. But a new dimension has entered our travels. Simply put it is, “Wouldn’t that be nice for T or B?”

Toys, clothes, games as well as postcards are now part of the roving eagle eye of my beloved. I will give you one example that will make you sob in your breakfast cereal. My wife sent T a postcard. This was duly posted in a Correos post box. “Now wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a toy Correos van for T?”

The local post offices didn’t have them. I thought if any place would have them it would be the main Correos in Madrid. So off we trekked this morning across the city to find the toy. Surprisingly it was there in a display cabinet. I don’t think they had ever sold one before because it took 4 people to work out where one was and how to sell it to us. But we have our toy van.

My feet are not thanking me for such adept thinking and insight. However, travelling with grandchildren adds a dimension to our travels that we have not had before.

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Another Day in Sevilla

I remarked in my last blog how uncomfortable I felt watching the Semana Santa processions in Sevilla. A few years ago I watched similar processions in Santiago de Compostela and it struck me at the time that, although not to my taste or sensibilities, there was a strong presence of the gospel. The death and resurrection of Christ were clearly presented and the message in the Santiago Cathedral square on Easter Sunday was gospel straight from Scripture.

On this occasion I met a couple from the south of Holland in the Cathedral square in Sevilla and I related the contrast between my two experiences. They expressed a similar sentiment, however their alternate experience had been Córdoba. This couple were Catholic and thought the Sevilla processions were more about other things than the Christian faith in contrast to Córdoba.

That was a helpful reflection for me.

The other thing I did today was go into the Sevilla Cathedral and also walk up the Giralda tower, one I am told in which two horses abreast can be ridden to the top. It is a continuous ramp but hopefully the horses lose a bit of weight near the top as the ramp narrows a little. While I was waiting for the ticket office to open I encountered a retired couple from Denmark. He was also a Teacher – a history teacher at that. We were at the head of the queue. History is too important to be pushed to the back of the line by the great unwashed! We also chatted about history and my favourite Danish films and TV programs.

The tower started off as a minaret but was as with other buildings in Spain it was repurposed by the Christians after the Moors were conquered. It is now the bell tower of the Cathedral. The Cathedral itself is large but not as ostentatious as some. It has some famous art works – especially Murillo.

This evening we tried tapas and paella. Hetty did remove any pieces that had suction cups attached.

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A Week of Processions

We are in Sevilla during Semana Santa or Holy Week. This entails incredible processions every day of the week. Some even starting at one in the morning. The locals are dressed to the nines and the tourists look like underdressed slobs – a description that is, in my case, accurate.

Holy Week processions are a sight to behold. Every church has a procession that includes a band, people dressed in robes reminiscent of the KKK and large statues carried by a number of men. Children carry crosses and we haven’t even got to the chains, bare feet and steel poles of the Friday procession. They process from their own church, go to the Cathedral and return to their home church. This is a logistical work of art that includes police, fence arrangers and chair ‘setter uppers’. It dominates the whole of the old city. Many of the well dressed people around town wear lapel pins that identify them with a particular church or society. There is an underlying sense of passionate competition between the groups.

What do I make of all this? It is a fabulous tourist attraction. National and international visitors flock to Sevilla. Bars make more now than at any other time of the year. However, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, are for me, at the heart of the Christian message. It is about Christ’s sacrifice for our total brokenness and his power over sin and death – again, for us. It is about reconciliation with God through His ‘agape’ self giving love.

I see glimpses of that in the theatre of the processions but I wonder if like so may religious traditions we make it more about us and what we want than God and what He has done. The festivities (I can’t think of a more appropriate word) has that secular and self obsessed air of Christmas.

I find myself in that uncomfortable position where I am intrigued and drawn in by the drama but deeply unsettled by its implied message.

The Giralda TowerThe Procession and milling crowds

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The Yo Yo Day

The Yo Yo day:

From two Spanish ladies wrecking my sleep to a beautiful meal with my birthday wife.

The day started very early. Two Spanish ladies addicted to their cell phones were communicating with others and each other in the early hours of the morning as I was trying to sleep in a bunk only half a metre away. Then at 5 am with headlights attached they started packing up and leaving the Albergue. It was like trying to sleep in a disco as their lights strobed around the room. That was a downward plunge of the yo yo. Then at 7 am when all the civilised pilgrims decided to rise and shine I told them it was Hetty’s birthday when Hetty was out of the dorm. When she returned they all sang happy birthday to her. The yo yo was on the way up.

We started walking at 8 am and entered the next village a few kms away and there was a beautifully kept bar with a friendly host who served croissants, coffee and fresh orange juice. We reconnected with some of our fellow pilgrims. The yo yo was still going up. However we needed to catch the bus as Hetty’s knee was hurting badly. We walked 4 kms to the bus stop only to find out the timetable was out of date and the next one wasn’t coming for hours. Yo yo going down again. After a frustrating time trying to work out what to do a lady stopped at the bus stop and insisted we get in her car and she drove us to Burgos. All she asked was that we pray for her. Monty was her name. Yo yo flying up.

My head was still pounding from spending a night in an airless disco dorm and when we got to the Pensión I wasn’t in a mood for making decisions but we had to and a domestic situation ensued. Yo yo plunging.

After a big deep breath Hetty went to the doctor who said she had to rest the leg. Good to know. Contacts in Madrid said they would be happy to see us next week. Yo yo up.

After a nice rest we entered the bustling crowds of Burgos at 8:30 and went to a pizza restaurant for a birthday dinner. Yo yo very up.

To mix the metaphors “Some days are diamonds and some are coal”. Today we had them both but the diamonds shone more brightly. My wife tells me she is the diamond.

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