Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In The Wilderness

This story is fictional, but mostly based on real people, although not real events.

He was running, running, running. His breath burst within his chest, painfully. Across the desert he wandered, cracks in the ground, jagged rocks rising from the parched land like bones. No matter where he looked, there was disaster. The soldiers would capture him for sure.
One of his finest companions, Uriah, was beside him. “Sir,” he panted, running beside his master, “Let us hide among the crooked rocks. Perhaps we could hide and gain some rest.”
“No,” David gasped, each stride desperately pointed in a particular direction.
“But, sir! Surely they will capture us!”
“No, we will get there first. Come!” David turned to enter the rocks. Uriah looked, mystified at David’s response. Did he listen to him or not? David runs around a few tall finger-like stones then stops, breathing heavily for a full five minutes until his lungs quieted. David was whispering, repeating like a mantra, “This is not the shelter I seek, this is not the shelter I seek.”
Behind him, Uriah could hear the soldiers walking close behind him. “The traitor must have run into these rocks, Sire. Only he would be so stupid to stop in the only hiding place in all this area. We will find him quickly. And destroy him forever.”
David gasped. The king! The king is with them. How David longed to grasp hold of his hand and beg for forgiveness, for whatever he had done. David knew that if he could just talk to the king, explain to him what the reality is, all this unpleasantness would be behind him.
“Do you think he is really in here, son?” Saul’s words were slurred as if he were drunk or drugged. David was infuriated. What have they done to my lord?
“Yes, sire. He will be dead in moments and your fears can be put to rest.” Fears! Thought David. This liar had drugged his king, convinced him that he was Jonathan, and then spread lied about David! Anger enflamed David’s mind. He would pay—this little man would squirm and moan in pain.
But the contingent of the king entered the rocks, turning dangerously close to David and his two men. Just as the last man entered the shelter, David ran out, straight across the open desert. Uriah shrugged and looked at the other man, and ran, following David.
The sun beat down on them, pushing them across the desert, causing precious moisture to escape from their bodies, dripping, wasted, upon the parched ground. In the distance, however, Uriah was making out a community. It was bare, only a few tents resting in the middle of empty wilderness, but it was clearly where David was heading.
They continued to run without rest until they reached the first tent. David ran right past it, to other tents in the community. Uriah paused and looked behind him. The king’s soldiers would be close behind them, but they haven’t finished looking through the rocks yet. Uriah breathed easier. There would be a little time. They could escape, if only they would leave this camp quickly.
Uriah turned toward the tents and walked through a few of them. On the other side of the camp, he spied David’s other men. “Adino!” Uriah called, and the two embraced, kissing each other on the cheeks. “How did you come here?”
“David sent us before you left. Didn’t you know?”
Uriah shrugged. “For once, he kept his own counsel.’ Uriah looked around, “Where is he? I know he came over here.”
Adino’s face scrunched up in disgust, “He didn’t greet us—not even to wave. He passed by as if we were strangers—or worse, enemies!—and ran into a tent there.”
“Which one?”
“That one over there.”
Uriah followed Adino’s finger, and walked to the tent. The flap was left open—stupid, allowing all the cool air of the morning escape to mix with the afternoon heat—so Uriah ducked under the flap and spied his master.
At the far end of the tent was the holy of holies, the seat of the Most High. There at the top were the seraphim—the angels that upheld the power and glory of God himself. Uriah struck, stunned. He had never seen such a sight before. For all of David’s clear devotion to Yahweh, Uriah was a foreigner, a Hittite, and his gods were different. But still, such an idol as this, with such clear power! No wonder David was so devoted!
And there was the man himself, prostrate before the image of the seat of God, murmuring. No, wait. He wasn’t just mumbling a prayer. He was singing! Uriah could make out some of the words, “My soul is satisfied… your right hand supports me…” Uriah mocked his devotion to himself. David sometimes could be so obtuse—not even seeing what situation he was in!
“My lord, the soldiers will soon leave the rocks and they will know where we…”
“SHUT UP! Just shut up! Don’t you think I know all that? This is where I am supposed to be.”
“Surely you don’t want us all to be captured…”
“We won’t be! And even if we are, what I am doing here is more important than life itself.”
“More important than your men?” Uriah scoffed. “Is your song to your god worth your faithlessness to your men who dedicated themselves to you?”
“I was up all night, Uriah,” David’s eyes were wild, almost insane. Uriah stayed silent, fearing David’s reaction. “And a song came to me, as if in a dream. ‘O God, you are my God,’ I sang in the midst of my enemies. And I knew that I had to reach the Sanctuary. I had to be before my God. Deliverance is not to be found in hiding, but in devotion. Don’t trust in me, Uriah. I am just a man. Trust in God.”

Raining, raining, raining. He awoke, cold and in the storm, with a light shining in his eyes and a shout in his ears. “Excuse me sir! Will you please come out of the tent!” Cops, he thought dejectedly. Why can’t they leave me alone? All I’m trying to do is sleep.
He got up to obey the command when he stopped suddenly. He could hear sniffing along the front of the tent. A K-9 unit. Suddenly fear gripped his heart. It was only a month ago when his friend, camped only a short distance from this very place, was attacked by a police dog. His leg and arm was all chewed up and he spent a week in the hospital. The doctors say he will walk again. Eventually. But the scars on his face and the fear in his heart would never heal. Never.
One of the cops was yelling, “C’mon—get out of there!”
“I’m coming!” David yelled back sharply. He arose out of his bag, put on his hat, and escaped under the tent in the back.
Damn, it was cold! He had no shoes and no coat and the icy wind blew on him, causing pellets of freezing rain to pelt his bare face. He dipped his head down to allow his hat to block the worst of the weather and he turned aside behind a tree. Shit! He stepped right into his latrine. And it was cold, too! What else could go wrong?
“He’s not in there,” he heard a shout a few yards back. “He must have gotten out through the back! C’mon!” Footsteps ran after him, and he escaped for his life.
His only deliverance was that he knew the small patch of woods better than the cops. For the last month he had been finding and following a three inch wide path through the woods to his camp in the dark. Even in the pitch black of 1am, he could follow it out. The cops didn’t know where he was going.
As David ran past tree after tree, swerving through the branches, he had time to consider. What have I done wrong? Perhaps they looking for a criminal, like they were last month. But probably they were just kicking him out. Maybe a neighbor saw him enter the woods and it took them all night to find his camp. Damn. That place is gone. As well as my tent. And my blankets. And food.
Don’t I have the right to sleep? It wasn’t my choice to be homeless. I don’t have much choice about it now. Don’t the cops know how difficult life is here? David has been outside for three years, and each winter is more difficult than the last. He had to stay in the urban area in order to take advantage of the services that were available there, but even with the few charities available, none of them had enough resources to get him off the street. To get him a truck to sleep in. To recover the tools someone had stolen from him so he could get back to his trade.
But David knew that the cops didn’t care about that. They saw him as a criminal, a thief of air and water and uncared-for property because he did not have the money or employment to pay for four walls and a roof.
Only five minutes later, however, he was out of woods, and the shelter of the trees fell behind him. He had gained a head start in front of the cops, but now he was out in the open and they could set their dog on him anytime. They might even shoot at him, like they did that girl who panicked at a pull-over and drove away. She’s dead now. What was he to do?
The church. It’s right around the corner. If there is just a slight possibility the priest forgot to lock the door…
He ran down the block to the doors of the chapel. Behind him, a full block away, the cops were huffing, trying to shout, “Stop!” but getting caught up by their short breath. Please, be open, please… He tried the tall door and, miracle enough, it was open! David entered and tried to shut the door behind him, but it was slowed by one of those things that closed doors carefully. Damn, come on! Finally, the door was shut and he locked it.
Walking through the foyer, he walked into the sanctuary. The lights were all off. He must be here by himself. Perhaps he could crash here for the night, get up early and then figure out where he could get a new tent. And blankets. And a coat. And shoes. He sighed. It would be a long day, full of refusals and dirty looks, as if he wanted to be ill-prepared at the beginning of winter.
Then he looked at the front of the sanctuary. There was Jesus, arms open, heart exposed. David snorted in disgust. He was raised to not worship idols, he mused. Nevertheless, there was something peaceful here. He felt at ease.
The cops reached the door and were pounding at it. “Let us in, or we’ll break it down!” David turned toward the door in fear. It wasn’t solid—they could break it, if they wanted. He spun around, scanning the room. Where to hide, where to go…
Suddenly, strangely, he remembered his dream. David, the warrior, his namesake, running to the sanctuary of God, only to pray from deliverance from his enemies. He wouldn’t escape, even though he could. He even endangered his men, because he was certain that God would deliver him. If only he would pray.
As the cops pounded on the door, David went to the front of the sanctuary, bowed his knees, turned his face away from the painted Jesus, and began to recite the words he had memorized as a child in Sunday school, “O God, thou art my God. Early will I seek Thee. My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and weary land where no water is…”
There was no hope, there was no escape. There is only God in this place. So only He could provide peace.

Father Ahim hid. He didn’t hear the homeless man come in, for he was sleeping under a pew in the middle of the sanctuary. His sleep was fitful, for he was constantly being awakened by unpleasant dreams. Finally, just as he dozed in restful slumber, there was pounding on the door.
“We know you’re in there! Open the door, or we’ll break it down!” O God, the priest thought, they know I’m in here… they will capture me and kill me before the king…wait. He came to his senses. That was a dream. But the banging seemed so real…
Again, Ahim shook in shock. This was real, not a dream. He remained silent for a moment, attempting to interpret the surreality of the moment. He remembered that he came to the sanctuary around midnight to pray for his sins. “Lord,” he begged, “Help me to not be such a hypocrite. Help me to control my mind, my actions. Teach me to love you. To love others.” After a while praying, he slept. So like the disciples, he thought. Could you not even remain in prayer one hour? Yet in his dreams he was being chased by soldiers, and they were so close. Yet in his dream he prayed and cried out to the Lord for help, confident that he would be delivered.
And now he is awakened by banging. Who desires in the sanctuary at this time of night?
Then, from the front of the room, he heard a gruff, low voice growl, “I remember Thee on my night bed; and meditate on Thee in the night watches.” Psalm sixty three, the priest remembered briefly from his life in the community of Foucauld.
“Who are you?” the priest asked across the room. The kneeling form jolted, surprised at the voice from nowhere. His head spun around, seeing no one. “Who is there?”
The priest got up and sat on the pew. “I am Father Ahim,” he stated carefully in his French accent. “Are you in trouble?”
To answer for him, the police yelled through the door again, “This is your last chance. We will have to break the door down now.”
“Hmmm, yes.” The priest stirred, fearful of what might happen to him should these violent men enter. “Who are they?”
“Cops,” the dirty man almost spat. “They chased me out of my camp in the woods.”
Ahim noted the sense that he had put in the back of his mind now—the smell of excrement and, strangely, a perfumed shampoo. Almost as if the man washes his hair daily, but missed the rest of his body for a month.
A loud bang came from the back of the room as the police made their first attempt to open the door. The man looked at the passive figure of the priest, “Don’t you think you should do something?”
The priest smiled, “Oh, the doors are strong. They should keep for a moment. Please, why do they chase you?”
“Hell, I don’t…” the man pulled up short. “Sorry.”
Ahim smiled, “’Hell’ is a biblical word as well, you know.”
The homeless man continued, “I mean, I don’t know. I was just sleeping, and they came out. I heard their dog outside…” Another bang on the door, and the man flinched, “so I ran away, out the back.”
“Ah, hmmm.” Father Ahim got up, “Let me speak with them.”
The man got up, with his hand trying to stop the priest, “You don’t want to go out there. They might do something to you.”
The priest smiled again and went to the door. He unlocked the door, opened it, and shut it behind him. “Excuse me, what is the problem?”
The two officers stood back, one tallish and dark-skinned, the other short and skinny. The tall one was rubbing his shoulder. “Look, we know you’ve got someone in there and we have to bring him in.”
The priest smiled, “Yes, there is someone here, but I am counseling him.”
The short cop scoffed, “At 1am?”
“My office doors don’t close.”
The short cop stepped up to the priest and tried to look imposing, “We’re going in to get that guy.”
“I do not allow you in.”
“We have every right to come in.”
“And I have every right to stop you.”
“You are obstructing justice! I will arrest you right now!”
The priest smiled and just stood there between the cops and the door. Oh, please, he thought. Arrest me. Please. It would look so beautiful in the headlines tomorrow.
The tall cop showed some reason, however, “Look, we don’t want to cause trouble. And we don’t want to violate your sanctuary. So if you could just ask him to come out, we promise not to do anything to him. We just need to talk to him for a minute.”
The priest looked directly at the tall cop, looking sternly. “And what of his blankets, his tent? What will happen to those?”
The tall cop had enough of a conscience to look abashed, “Well, we will have to confiscate those.”
The priest replied shortly, “Then you have caused enough harm. Do you have any further business here?”
The short cop stepped forward as if to speak, but the tall cop but his hand on the man’s shoulders and pulled him back. The tall cop said, “If you don’t mind, we may come by tomorrow to see how you are.”
The priest smiled and replied, “Please. You are welcome anytime. Just as long as you give no threat.”
The cops walked away and Father Ahim went back into the chapel, locking the door behind him.

As the priest was gone, David continued to pray. He didn’t know the right words, so he recited Psalm 63 and then the Lord’s Prayer. And then Psalm 63 again. Just as he was finishing, “every one that sweareth by him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped,” the priest returned. Alone.
Hope mingled with the deadening fear in his gut as he asked, “So. What happened.”
The priest said, “They have gone. But I fear your camp will be taken immediately.”
David grunted. “My stuff was history from the time I ran away from it.”
The priest nodded. “I suppose so. So what are your plans?”
“Well,” David began hesitatingly, “I was hoping that perhaps I could stay here tonight and leave early in the morning.”
“I’m afraid that would be impossible. Prayer group at 6am.”
David was abashed. Why the hell was the priest there that night anyway? I could have snuck in and no one would have been bothered. Why is everyone so opposed to just letting me have a little peace? Enemies on every side. And what have I done? Nothing. What crime is it to sleep outside…
The priest looked a bit shocked and said, “Excuse me,” in his funny accent. That was when David realized that he was speaking aloud. “I’m sorry, Father. I shouldn’t have said anything. If you could just give me five to make sure the cops are gone then I’ll be one my way…”
The priest repeated, “Excuse me, but you interrupted me with your speech. As I was saying, it would be impossible for you to stay in the sanctuary, but you could stay in my rooms. It’s cozy, but we should be fine. And if you were willing to work, you could stay there for a bit with me.”
David was shocked, but he didn’t hesitate in answering, “Well, yeah, I’m willing to work. In fact, if you’ve got tools, I could fix your place up a bit. I’m a bit of a handyman, actually…”
The priest said, “And, perhaps a cleaner?”
David said, “I can clean, if that’s what you mean?”
The priest said, “Good. Perhaps you could begin this evening by cleaning the excrement off of the rug of the chapel?”
David looked behind him and noticed the partial footprints of his shit that had followed him from his camp. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up…”
“Yes, yes, of course. And I will help. I am a cleaner, myself.”
In the midst of their scrubbing, the priest asked him, “So, what is your name?”
“David, Father.”
The priests’ eyes widened and he said, “Interesting. I was just dreaming of the ancient king of the same name.”
David stopped scrubbing for a moment and looked at the priest. He didn’t want to reveal that he also had a dream of David. It just seemed too freaky.
“And there was also a priest that helped this king, after running away from soldiers. Strange, isn’t it?”
David was startled, but wasn’t ready to open up to this stranger, as nice as he seemed. “Maybe.”
“I think perhaps we were meant to meet.”
David thought so too. And he also was confident that his prayer was answered.

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