As the Crow Flies

The following short story was an entry of mine last year to a contest.  A publishing company sponsored it.  They gave the first and last paragraphs and I had to write exactly 48 paragraphs in between, connecting them.  No actually dialogue to be included.  Any subject.  I joined the contest late so I only had a week to write it, edit it, and send it in.  I didn’t win anything, but I think it’s a pretty good story.  See what you think:

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

But this was it! He was close – He just knew it. His spirit had come back to him. He was on track again. His instincts were back. He had felt things for the first time since “the failure” – his gut was working again! He just had to be in time – this time. For the first time in three years, he felt alive. He had hope. He felt like he could make a difference again.

Alex McCall used to be a good detective. He had once been a good cop, then struck out on his own and had become an even better private investigator. He had been very successful – once upon a time – but that all changed with one case. He had found stolen goods. He had solved insurance fraud. He had found long-lost heirs to a fortune! He had tracked down more than one criminal for the police. He had found a couple of missing teens and once thwarted a ransom attempt by a couple of thugs who had taken a little boy from his rich grandfather. But three years ago, he was too late.

Oh, he found the woman, just not in time. He was less than thirty minutes late to save her from a gunshot to the head by her kidnapper! It was not his fault, but you couldn’t convince him of that. The police had interfered and slowed down his pursuit. But that didn’t matter. No matter how many people said it was not his fault, he could not shake the idea that it was. He felt he should have done something differently. If he had avoided the police. If he hadn’t called it in. If …if…if… He had replayed it in his mind almost daily for nearly three years now. But it didn’t help. Laura Cantwell was dead, and he missed saving her by less than a half an hour.

Ever since then he was a mere shadow of his former self. He didn’t drink, but sometimes almost wished he did. Maybe that would have helped him forget. But he had watched his father drink away his family, his future, and eventually his life and Alex had vowed that would never happen to him! Sometimes he wondered what the difference was. He wasn’t drunk, but he seemed to be in a stupor. He was wasting his life, no good to anyone, yet sober. What difference did it make? But he still refused to drink.

He had survived the loss of his wife to a freak automobile accident when he was still a rookie cop. He was on night patrol and she had to go to the store late at night in the rain by herself. A truck slid off the road in front of her and she lost control of her car trying to avoid it. She was killed instantly. He was thankful she hadn’t suffered. He was thankful that they hadn’t had any children yet and he would not have to raise them alone. He handled that well, yet somehow, he couldn’t get past “the failure.”

He had never remarried. He threw himself into his work. Maybe that’s what made him so good. He had little in his life to distract him. He could stay focused. There was no one to worry about at home. Danger made no difference without a wife waiting for him to come home at night. He could stay at the job for hours on end and know that there was no one lonely at home. None of that mattered now. He couldn’t focus on anything for very long. Everything seemed somehow to remind him of “the failure.”

There was a brief relationship about a year and a half earlier, but he quickly messed that up, too. Just a real nice lady he had met on a stake out. He spent some time, three nights in a row, at an all-night diner, watching the fleabag hotel across the street. The owner of the diner was also the waitress. She was attractive and funny and since it was late at night, she had time to spend with him. They hit it off right from the start. For two short months he almost forgot about Laura. Then one night they were watching an old gangster movie and a young lady was kidnapped. The police didn’t get there in time to save her either! He reverted into his stupor and fouled up his new relationship. He didn’t treat her badly – he just didn’t treat her at all. She walked away. He never saw her again. He read in the paper one day that she had gotten married and that was that. All he had after that was work and very little of that.

He kept his license current and continued to take cases, just nothing big. He only took on enough to make enough money to pay the rent and buy a few groceries – and he didn’t eat much anymore. Occasionally, he would take on an accident probe or perhaps solve a hit-and-run. Mostly he worked divorce cases. He hated divorce cases and before “the failure” he wouldn’t even take them on. Spying on philandering husbands or a lonely, cheating wife, driven to an affair out of desperation for love from her husband. Following, watching from the shadows, taking pictures, chronicling dates, times, and places to verify the affairs. Helping one spouse get the goods on the other to get out of a bad marriage without paying for it. But it didn’t require much from him to do and it paid the bills.

Not enough for a new car or even a good used one, but enough to keep the old El Dorado running. Once it had been new and drew attention and envy. Then it became a classic. Then a classic in need of a makeover. Now, it wasn’t much more than a beater that needed constant repairs and occasionally more than he could afford. Mostly, he just didn’t care anymore. Not since he failed to save Laura. He had solved the case, but he lost her!

He had rehearsed the story over and over in his mind so many times. He dreamt about it – when he could sleep. He wrote about it. For a few weeks he had seen a therapist and even actually talked about it. Not to anyone else, ever, but to the therapist. It didn’t help. He tried praying about it, but apparently, he didn’t know how to get through. Or maybe God wanted him to work through it on his own. He didn’t know, but it didn’t work. Nothing did. But things had worked. Once upon a time, he was good. That’s why they called him.

Usually, if it was a criminal case, Alex was contacted by the civilian party after the police had their shot at it. Sometimes, though, even the police would call him. He had been that good. Being a former cop had probably helped, too. In any case, literally, when you needed help, you could count on Alex McCall. He knew how to get things done. He solved puzzles. He had instincts that were usually right on target. His “gut” told him what was what. He got feelings down deep and had learned to trust them. And it had all worked, right up to and including the Laura Cantwell case.

He had discovered that Laura had met a man online and started up an internet romance. Eventually, they set up a meet at a nice restaurant on a Friday night at 7:00. She never showed up. David Johns figured she had gotten cold feet and changed her mind. He tried to contact her again for a few days to no avail and then read about her disappearance in the paper! He called the police, even knowing that he would probably wind up the prime suspect. He had been, but the police quickly cleared him.

Her parents had called in Alex to help after the police hit a dead end. In a short time, Alex knew and convinced the parents that this David guy had nothing to do with it. He had learned that Laura had been stalked online and David had been hacked that night to change the meeting place. Laura went to meet him somewhere else and had been abducted.

A week later, Alex had tracked the hack back to an internet café, spotted the hacker on a security video and retrieved the message to locate the new meeting place. There, he dug up security footage from a camera across the street that had captured the abduction on film. A contact at the DMV gave him an address for the vehicle that turned out to be an empty house. The police took over and eventually came up with a more recent address, but it didn’t pan out either.

Alex finally left the police behind to go it alone again and soon had traced the car’s movements through several traffic cams and security footage from businesses along the abductor’s route. It led him to an abandoned apartment complex on the city’s south side. He called for police back up and was told to wait. He did but he shouldn’t have. While the police searched the complex with Alex waiting in a squad car, the kidnapper shot Laura and tried to get away. He was killed in a gun battle with the police, but by the time Alex figured out which apartment he had used, Laura was dead.

Until today, he had not been able to get past that. He went to Laura’s funeral, but it didn’t help. Probably because he never knew her. He really couldn’t grieve. He visited her parents a few times over the first few months. They were kind and he knew they did not blame him in the least. In the end, he knew he was much more of a downer for them than they were a pick-me-up for him. So, he stopped going by. He always figured he had finally done them a favor when he did that.

He had not taken another case like Laura’s until this one, but Sondra Keller’s parents had practically begged him. The police were at a loss. Her parents were desperate. They had researched Alex and knew his history. They were convinced he could help. They knew Laura’s death was not his fault. He could do this, and they needed him. He said he would try, but his heart was not in it. Even when he began to make progress he still had to force himself onward.

But gradually, he was coming back. His old instincts were sparking back to life. His mind was clearing from the fog he had been in since “the failure” – as he called it. His gut was feeling something besides hunger again and it had brought him to this tee in the road. He had reluctantly agreed to search for Sondra. He looked into what had happened, what the police knew, what they couldn’t figure out. Sondra was 42 years old and single. She had never married, didn’t even date much. She had immersed herself into her career and had done well in real estate. She was close to her parents and visited them often, especially for dinner and a little TV on nights she wasn’t with a client.

A quick check of her laptop by the police techs showed that someone had hacked her computer and had been cyber-stalking her for a few weeks. Whoever this geek was, he had learned her habits and her schedule. The Geek knew when she was home alone and when she went out – often even where she was going. It didn’t take much for him to figure out a place and time to grab her.

There had been no ransom demand, so the police were baffled. After a little research, Alex discovered that a half dozen 40-50-year-old women in a few neighboring towns had gone missing in the past few months. There had been no ransom demands, no dead bodies so far, and no trace of any of them – few clues, nothing solved. Alex suspected a connection and followed up on it. There was very little inter-departmental cooperation and no one else had tried to connect the dots. All the cases were too new to have attracted much attention yet. Except for Alex, that is.

He found out that each one of the women had been cyber-stalked and soon learned that all could be traced to the same internet café in his town. A security video from the café led to identifying a suspect and a search warrant produced enough evidence to arrest the cyber-Geek. He confessed to his part of a sordid sex-ring, but he did not know the identities of hardly any of the others involved. It took little more than a couple of days for Alex and the police to learn the whole affair and catch most of them.

Some rich, spoiled fraternity boys at a local college had tired of partying with girls their own age. One tried his hand at seducing the mother of one of his friends and found it to be both challenging and satisfying. He then challenged his frat brothers to try to do the same, but they soon found it difficult to find good prospective “partners.” It did not take long for them to escalate to kidnapping and rape! They hired the Geek who knew about a big, strong, easily-influenced criminal type who could help with the kidnapping. The Geek and the Big Ox had contracted to track and take those six women for money from the frat boys. Later, they sold the women to a drug cartel for sex-trafficking. The Geek had made the connections on the dark web – all very discreet and hush hush. All contacts were made online. He purposely didn’t know where to find the Ox, so he really could not help them find where he had taken Sondra. The boys gave a decent though vague description of the big guy from one brief meeting.

Alex took the description and left the station. He had picked up on something no one else seemed to notice. He almost told his lieutenant friend, but then he remembered “the failure.” He had blamed himself for three years for letting the police take over his investigation about Laura. He wasn’t about to let that happen again! So, he kept it to himself and returned home for some quick research.

The Geek had made one little off-hand remark that set off a little twinge in Alex’s stomach. When questioned about the Big Ox, he said he had never seen him, didn’t have his phone number, and did not really know anything about him at all. A few seconds later, though, he said something about him being such a low-life, what with always drinking whiskey and riding mechanical bulls. Alex had a hunch that he might find a man fitting Ox’s description at a bar with one of those mechanical bulls.

A quick online search gave up only two such places in town. There were a few more in the county, but Alex felt sure it would be one of the local ones. A few years before there would have been more to check out, but the fad had faded some and now Google only revealed two. One on each end of town. Naturally. Occasionally, the leg work went smoothly and contacts were close together, but this one was just the opposite.

The first one turned out to be one of Alex’s versions of Murphy’s Law (he called it McCall’s Law): when time is of the essence, you can count on some leads to be a big waste of time! The bartender listened to Alex’s description of the man and said it fit lots of guys, but only a few of their regular bull riders. He asked about likely behavior patterns but as Alex finished his description of those, the man was already shaking his head. He told Alex that he couldn’t think of any of the riders that would fit the bill. Alex thanked him and moved on. With the drive and the questioning, he had wasted a good half hour. He quickly crossed town to the other bar.

By the time he arrived it was mid-afternoon and not much was happening. There were only a few people in the bar. That made for a good talk with the lady bartender but showed quickly that Ox was not there now. The young lady behind the bar was very helpful and sympathetic to Alex’s need to know. After he described Ox to her, she said she just might know who he was looking for. In fact, he had just left there less than an hour ago! She only knew him as Joe. He always drank quite a bit, usually whiskey, and rode the bull several times. He hit on every female in the place every time, but never seemed to score even a kiss, much less a date. There was just something kind of scary about him. He left alone today, as always.

Alex got her to go over some security footage with him that overlooked the bar’s parking lot. She pointed him out to Alex as the video showed Joe exit the bar and climb into an old jeep and drive away – north out of the parking lot, away from town. The jeep would not be hard to spot because Joe had backed into a pole while leaving and broke a tail light. Alex grabbed the gal and planted a big kiss right on her lips and thanked her! As he hurried out of the bar, she struggled a moment to regain her composure and called out for him to come back real soon! Apparently, it wasn’t only his investigating skills that were returning.

Alex fired up the Dorado and headed north. He had no idea where he was going, but his gut was working again. This was the guy and he was headed back to where he was holding Sondra. If Joe somehow got wind that everyone else had been arrested, he would surely kill her. Alex would have to be in time to save her. He just could not fail again. The bar was at the edge of town. He figured that Joe would have her stashed out of town somewhere and that’s why he headed away from town instead of toward it. Alex followed his instincts and as he approached the junction at the city limit, he got the feeling he should pull into the big one-stop gas station on the corner. Maybe Joe had stopped for gas.

Alex questioned the young attendant behind the counter and sure enough, Joe was just there a little while ago! The attendant had noticed the jeep pull in. Joe didn’t get gas but stopped in for whiskey and cigarettes. He already smelled of alcohol. He took the time to try to flirt with the other attendant, but she rebuffed him. He cussed a little at her, paid for his stuff, and left. The attendant had watched him leave to make sure that he did and noticed that instead of continuing north on the highway, Joe had left the lot heading west from the junction. He offered to help Alex if he needed advice about the area, since he had hunted all over that section of the country and knew it well. Alex put the attendant’s number in his phone but didn’t notice that his battery was very low. Alex would have lost Joe had he not listened to his gut and stopped at the station! He was only minutes behind the Ox now, but the jeep could still be long gone.

There were no side roads for the next couple of miles, but suddenly, just ahead there was a turnoff to the right. Alex slowed down and looked down the side road. His gut reacted so he pulled onto the road and took a good look around. There! Fresh skid marks on the road. Someone – he figured drunk Joe – had recently skidded around the corner, leaving the marks as he regained control. Alex’s gut told him Joe had turned here. He listened to his gut and proceeded down the road.

In about a half a mile, the road came to a tee. Alex stopped and looked both ways. It was still daylight, though overcast, and Alex could see quite a way in either direction – uphill to the right and downhill to the left. No sign of anything either way. Sadly, his gut was silent this time. He had no clue which way to go, nor what might lie in either direction. He didn’t feel like he had the time to waste on another trip that would lead to nowhere. He decided to call the station attendant for advice. No bars on his phone! McCall’s law again – another time waster.

He got out of the Dorado and walked around trying to pick up some tower power. Nothing. He started back up the hill toward the main road. One bar, two, then three bars as he topped the hill! He called the station and explained his dilemma. The young man knew exactly where Alex was. He told him that up the hill to the right of the tee was an old abandoned lumber mill that some folks still went to just to cut some wood on their own. Alex figured that would explain the saw he heard when he first got out of the car. He also thought that wasn’t likely the place to hide a woman.

The young man said that down the hill from the tee, the road went on for several miles before winding back around to town. When Alex asked him if there were any side roads or any old houses or cabins around, the attendant remembered one. Once while hunting in that area, he had sought shelter from the rain in a cabin not too far from the tee. He told Alex that there was a gravel road on the right about two miles downhill from the tee. That road would go for three or four miles, winding around until it played out at a cabin back in the woods. He said the cabin was probably only two miles from the tee as the crow flies, but it would take quite awhile to drive there in a car. It was five or six miles and most of it was on a rough gravel lane. Alex somehow knew that was the place. That is where Joe went – where Alex would find Sondra. But would he be in time?

Alex thanked the man and headed back down to the Dorado. His phone went dead. When he got to the car, it was dead, too! Nothing. Not even a moan or a groan. The only sound was the clicking of the ignition as the engine stayed silent. He started to get out of the car to hurry back up the hill and call for help. Then he remembered his phone had just died. He was on his own and it was a long walk to the cabin. Even if his gut was right about Sondra being there with Joe, Alex knew he might not make the five or six miles in time to save her. What else could he do? Nothing. He would have to try, so he got out of the car to start walking.

It was just then that he heard crows cawing and looked up overhead. Two crows flew directly over him heading out over the field in the direction of the cabin. He remembered the attendant saying the cabin was probably just two miles as the crow flies! He had to do it. He could cross the two miles of field faster than follow the road – it just had to be the right way. He climbed over the fence, set his sights on a big tree way out in front of him in the direction of the cabin – he hoped – and started walking as fast he dared go through the rough field. Once he got to the tree he could find another marker further on to help him stay on the straight crow path.

For an out-of-shape man of 55 who hadn’t done much exercising in, well, forever, Alex kept up a pretty good pace. He was driven by his need to get there fast. He could not risk losing any time – not this time. He could not let Sondra be another Laura! He pressed on, until finally, he made it to the other side of the field. He crossed that fence, too and quickly stepped onto some gravel. It was partially grown over with grass, but it was a gravel lane. The cabin had to be to the right if the lane dead-ended at the cabin like the station attendant had remembered. He headed that way, powered by a second wind. Or was it his third wind? No matter.

In just a couple hundred yards, the lane stopped at a clearing in the trees and there sat the jeep in front of an old cabin, broken tail light and all! He was right. He knew he had been, but he felt validated somehow. Now, if only he was not too late. He couldn’t let himself even think otherwise. He had to stay focused! If he was in time, Sondra would need him.

This time he would be there for her. This time he was on his own. No back up, but no police who might have to go by the rules and delay him. He would not sit this one out in the car. He remembered – he didn’t even have a car to sit in! Even drunk, Joe was big and might be a handful. But then, Alex had no intention of fighting with him. He double checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and ready. He knew it was, but he always checked anyway. He left the lane to creep toward the cabin in the grass.

He snuck up to a window on the side of the cabin, keeping low until he reached it. Then he slowly raised up until he could peek inside. He was in time! Sondra was alive! She was sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the front room. Her hands were tied together behind the chair back and her ankles were tied to the chair legs. Joe stood in front of her, yelling at her. He staggered a bit – obviously drunk. Alex was about to storm the front door when Joe pulled a gun out of his belt and started waving it around. Alex stopped. If he rushed in, Joe might shoot Sondra! He had to hope that Joe was not done taunting her. He needed time to plan a distraction and get Joe away from where he could easily shoot her. He quietly crept around back.

Joe took a big swig from his whiskey bottle and then held it out to Sondra, yelling at her to take a drink. She couldn’t have taken a drink if she had wanted to – her hands were tied behind her back. Joe put the gun back in his belt and grabbed her hair, pulling her head back and down, forcing her chin upward. He held her head in place as he poured whiskey into her mouth and all over her as she sputtered and gagged. He hollered at her to swallow it! Alex could hear the yelling and figured as long as Joe was yelling, he wasn’t shooting. Sondra just cried and sputtered some more. Joe took a knife from the table nearby and reached around to cut her hands free. Alex found what he needed out on the back porch.

Joe handed the bottle to Sondra and told her to drink it. She refused, but he pulled the gun again. She tried to drink it but could barely manage a sip at a time. Alex found a metal bucket, a rope, and a wooden barrel on the back porch. He tied the rope to the bucket handle and set the bucket on top of the barrel. Then he slowly backtracked, unwinding the rope as he walked toward the window where he had been. That was as far as the rope would reach. It would have to do. Joe was yelling louder and pointing the gun at Sondra. Alex took out his gun and pulled on the rope. The bucket crashed loudly to the porch.

Joe was surprised by the banging out back. Even drunk, he ran to the back door to see what had caused it. Alex went quickly and quietly to the front door and carefully opened it. As he stepped inside, he motioned to Sondra to be quiet. Joe jerked open the back door and stepped outside. It would not take him long to discover it was a set-up. Alex had to work fast! He got the knife from the table and handed it to Sondra. She would have to cut her legs free herself. If things went wrong, she could at least run for her life. Joe saw the rope tied to the bucket and turned back into the house. Alex heard him yell out a cuss word. He knew Joe was coming. Joe bolted through the back door with his gun in his hand to face whoever had done this.

Alex had never planned to wait on Joe to get back into the front room. Instead he side-stepped over to where he would be facing Joe as he came through the back room. Seeing Alex, Joe raised his gun to fire. Alex dropped him with three quick shots to the chest! Joe fell to the floor, dropping his gun. Alex rushed to his side and kicked the gun away. He stooped down to check on Joe. He wasn’t moving, but he was still alive. There was no way he could move to get the gun again, so Alex left it for the police to find and returned to the front room to Sondra.

She was free now and standing. She fell into Alex’s arms and sobbed into his chest as he assured her that it was all over. He told her no one could hurt her now. She asked if Joe was dead and Alex told her not yet, but he probably wouldn’t last long. She needed to see for herself, so with Sondra still clinging tightly to him, they shuffled together to the doorway so she could. Changing her focus away from Joe, Alex asked if Joe had a cell phone. He knew that Sondra’s had been smashed and left behind when Joe took her. She said he did and that it was on the end table by the couch, but she wasn’t sure there was any tower power there. She had not heard him make or get any calls.

Alex got the phone and thankfully, there were bars on it! He called the police. Sondra would not let go of him as he talked. She learned his name as he identified himself to the police and told them what had happened and how to find them. They would get men out there as soon as possible and send an ambulance, too. Alex checked on Joe once more. He was still alive, but barely. Alex didn’t much care. There wasn’t anything he could do for him anyway, even if he had wanted to help. He and Sondra stepped out onto the front porch and into some fresh air to wait for the police. It must have been late in the afternoon. All Alex knew for sure was that he had gotten there in time – this time. Sondra didn’t want to talk about it yet, so they chatted to get to know one another. She had a million questions for her hero!

When the police arrived, Alex surrendered his weapon to one of them and the questioning began. A couple of them went inside to confirm what Alex had described on the phone. One returned with Joe’s gun. Another began to cordon off the cabin with yellow tape, while another radioed back to the station. The ambulance arrived shortly after the first patrol car had. One of the EMTs came to check Sondra over while the other went inside the cabin to check on Joe. He returned quickly to get the gurney and ask his partner for help with Joe. Amazingly, Sondra was okay, so they left her with Alex and took the gurney inside.

In a little while, the police dropped off Alex and Sondra at the El Dorado. The ambulance had taken Joe away but didn’t need the siren. There was a pretty good crowd of law enforcement officers around the Dorado. Local police, county deputies, and a few state troopers. Some had jumped and charged the Dorado’s battery. Alex had charged his cell phone in a squad car while answering questions about the rescue. It was time to go. Alex told the police that he would bring Sondra by the station.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

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Filed under Short Stories

The Real Nativity Story

    Here’s what you usually see and hear around Christmas time in our western culture attempt to depict the birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago:  Joseph and Mary showed up at night in Bethlehem in response to a decree to return to their family’s hometown for a census.  Mary was just about to give birth.  She is often riding on a donkey.  They went to the local travelers’ inn, but found no vacant rooms.  The innkeeper allowed them to make do in the stable with the animals.  When Jesus was born they wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in the manger – a feeding trough for the animals.  A little later, after hearing from angels about the birth, shepherds came to the stable to worship Jesus.  Three kings from a land farther east showed up and brought him gifts.  The shepherds left and went around telling everyone they could about what they had seen and heard.  It is usually not in the nativity story, but might be in some, that these kings, called wise men, were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod in Jerusalem, but to go home by some other route, which they did.

Some of that does not line up with the biblical accounts found in Matthew 2 and Luke 2.  Neither passage tells of an innkeeper nor is it clear that the inn mentioned in Luke 2 refers to an actual traveler’s lodge.  There is no mention of a stable, only that the baby was laid in a feeding trough.  The shepherds part is usually pretty accurate – watching sheep in a field at night, visited and informed by angels, going to find the baby, worshipping, and going to tell others about it.

The other visitors were identified by scripture as magi. They were likely then, not kings.  We don’t know how many there were.  The number three probably comes from the three gifts mentioned.  According to the Matthew passage they saw a “star” in the sky one night that they believed signaled the birth of  new king in the land of Israel.  They eventually sought his whereabouts by asking King Herod in Jerusalem.  He asked specifically when they had seen the star and later in an attempt to kill Jesus, had all the boys killed in the area who were two years old and younger – according to the time the magi reported having seen the star – apparently, around two years earlier!  When they found Jesus, he was with his parents in a house, not a stable.  The term for the child is not that used of an infant, but rather a young child.  They were  warned in a dream not to return to Herod as he had instructed them, so they went home another way.

So what really happened?  Well, we just don’t know all the details for sure.  It is clear, regardless of tradition, that the so-called wise men were not kings, did not show up at the birth, stable or otherwise, and Jesus was no longer a baby when they did show.  It is clear from scripture that the only ones we know for sure who did go to see the newborn king were shepherds after they heard from angels about the birth.  We know that Joseph did not find lodging wherever he expected to find it and when Jesus was born, he was laid in a feeding trough.  Was that in a stable made of wood or a cave that served as a stable or was it merely in the lower level of a house where animals were kept?  We don’t know.  So, questions arise.

Well, since you asked, here’s what I think:  Joseph and Mary did go to the local inn in Bethlehem, which they found full – no lodging room, no room in the guest chambers, no room in the inn – there is absolutely nothing in the biblical account that does not fit this scenario.  The “inn” can be interpreted this way.  IF it was an inn of this sort, it very likely would have been full.  After all, those who suggest the couple would have sought lodging among Joseph’s family, tell us they had no room in their guest chamber either!  It is more likely that an innkeeper could not have made room for them than for family not to have rearranged their sleeping arrangements! It seems to me that the whole idea of no room where one would normally hope to find room after traveling, is better suited to the traditional account.  And of course, where there’s an inn, there would be an innkeeper!

So, finding no vacancy at the inn, they were afforded makeshift lodging in the stable used by guests of the inn.  When Jesus was born, there would have been a manger handy.  When the angels told the shepherds they would find the baby lying in a manger, it would not take much to find him IF he was in the inn’s stable.  In a manger?  That would mean in a stable or the lower floor of one of many houses in town.  Much more logical that travelers would go to the inn and if the baby is in a manger, it would be in the inn’s stable!  Hopefully, that would be the case, since the angels did not tell the shepherds anything more specific to help them and if that is not where he was born, they would have to search every house in town!

But they found him.  Worshipped him.  Then left to tell everyone they could about all they had seen and heard!  And that’s where the nativity story ends.  The wise men story came later.  As much as two years later.  This we know by the Matthew 2 passage.  They likely were not kings, since they were identified as magi – astronomers, perhaps astrologers, eastern magicians of sorts, possibly teachers of astronomy, but certainly men who had studied the heavens watching and waiting for a sign that a new king was born in Israel.  We are not sure why they would know to do so or even care to do so.  I think through testimony handed down since the days of Daniel (check it out yourself).  Regardless, they traveled to Jerusalem to inquire of King Herod about the birth and where to find the baby.  He learned by questioning them when they had seen the star they believed had signaled the birth and later had all the boys in that region killed according to that time frame – two years old and younger.  So they arrived between one and two years after the birth.

The scripture says they found a young child in a house with his parents after being guided by that same light they had seen earlier.  So, not a baby, not a stable.  Yes, it could have been the same house Jesus was born in if he had indeed been born in a house owned by one of Josephs’ relatives.  But it also could have been such a house even if he was born in the inn’s stable.  Or maybe a house Joseph procured later.  Who knows?  Who cares?  It was a house.  The magi found them, worshipped him and presented him gifts.  Three different kinds of gifts – not necessarily just one of each and not necessarily one gift per man.  We don’t know.  So, we also don’t know how many magi there were.  I figure a whole caravan may have travelled to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem – remember it took a long time!  I doubt, though, that more than three or four went into the house with the gifts.  It doesn’t really matter just so you know that the Bible does not say “we three kings of Orient are…”

So, why do we include three kings with the shepherds at the stable?  A little bit of tradition and probably a whole lot of convenience.  It is hard to put two years into a short nativity play, even harder in just a scene!  Is it wrong?  Well, of course it’s incorrect.  Is it misleading?  Somewhat, but it gives you the opportunity to make sure your kids and others know the scriptures.   If misleading, is it then sinful?  Only if your intent is to mislead or obscure the truth.  Is saying 2 + 2 = 5 wrong?  Yes.  Is it misleading?  Yes.  Is it sinful?  I don’t see how unless you insist it is right and you intend to mislead others away from the truth.  Personally, I would try to tell the two stories as two separate stories, since that is what the Bible does.  In fact, that is what I did!  I wrote two separate children’s books – “Twas the Night Jesus Was Born” and “The Visit of the Magi.”  You can check them out and buy them at http://www.twasthenightjesuswasborn.com.

 

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Debunking the Nativity Story – or NOT!

There has been much written and much more said to try to debunk the traditional western version of the Nativity.  To be sure, some of it needs to be debunked – or at least understood for what it is, which is a modern, feeble attempt to portray the birth of Jesus over 2000 years ago in a land and culture far from our western experience.

The wise men were likely not kings, we have no idea how many there were, they did not arrive for a long time after the birth (perhaps nearly 2 years!), and they found a young child (not a baby) in a house rather than a stable.  We are not sure what is really meant by the word translated as “inn” nor whether the feeding trough was in a stable, a cave, a house, or where.

Many have proposed that Jesus was born in a house with Joseph’s (or Mary’s) family around him and the animals – therefore the manger – would have been a part of said house on the lower floor.  Archaeology and cultural studies show that this type of house was very common – people upstairs and animals on the ground floor.  If other family had come to Bethlehem for the census, then perhaps the guest room (in apparently the only house owned by a relative!) was too full for Joseph, Mary, and soon-born Jesus.  Mary would also have needed privacy and so, this narrative goes, the birth would have taken place on the lower floor – hence the feeding trough for a bed.  That would answer some previously unanswered questions, but it also brings up some more difficult ones.

Was there only one relative of Joseph, and none of Mary, who had a house in Bethlehem?  Why would anyone, much less family, make the new born baby sleep in a feeding trough!?  Why is there absolutely no mention of family in the only real account we have – Luke 2?  Luke said as he began his gospel that he set out on purpose to make an accurate account of what was fulfilled, even though many others and eye witnesses had made sure to hand down the information.  Yet, they all apparently chose or were instructed by the Holy Spirit  not to tell us about the family and house situation!  By the way, if my pregnant relative came to stay with me,  there would be room in my guest room!  Maybe I’m just way nicer than those first century families!

What we do not know would fill volumes.  What we do know fills only a few verses of the Bible.  We don’t need so much speculation that cannot be proven.  We need to recognize the facts and not pick on everyone else’s opinions, so long as they don’t obscure what we need to know.

Here’s what we know:  Joseph and Mary did not find normal lodging in Bethlehem, so the newborn Jesus was laid in a feeding trough.  There is no mention of any family around nor anyone else until the shepherds came from nearby fields to see the baby.  The sign given them for knowing they had found the right baby was that he would be wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  Magi came nearly two years later, after having seen a light in the sky they believed signaled his birth, to a house to find a young child, and brought him gifts.

Just a side note – IF Jesus was born in one of the many typical houses of Bethlehem, the shepherds would have had to conduct an exhaustive search to discover which one.  IF, however, it was the stable associated with the local travelers’ lodge (the inn) and since they knew he would be in a feeding trough, it would have been a simple, task to find him.  Just sayin’!

Here’s what matters:  The Son of God took on flesh and was born to a virgin around 2000 years ago.  He came to save people from their sins.  There was then, and has been ever since, attempts to destroy him and why he came.  His name is Jesus.  He is God in the flesh.  He is the only way to a relationship with God the Father – through forgiveness of our sins.

Some of it depends on what you believe about the Bible.  If you believe what it says about itself – that it is the inspired word of God – then you must accept what it says and ought not be too concerned with what it doesn’t say.  It says he was laid in a feeding trough for animals because there was no room in some sort of place where guests typically lodge.  It doesn’t say what kind of place that was (the word for “inn” can be translated several different ways.)  It doesn’t tell us about anyone other than the shepherds coming that night to see this baby!  No family, no friends, no townsfolk, NO ONE, but shepherds!  Maybe others did, maybe they didn’t, but God didn’t say, so it must not matter.  It does  matter that shepherds came, worshipped, and left to tell everyone they could.

What matters most is the “Word” became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory and his coming changed everything!  It will change everything for you when you trust him!  Trust him – not tradition, not religion, not intellect, not your own abilities, not anything or anyone but HIM for your salvation and eternal destiny.  If you will be saved from your sin, it will be by his grace through faith in him (faith that he has given you to exercise) or you will not be saved at all.

We celebrate that at Christmas!  In lots of flawed ways because we are flawed people.  But it is better than missing it altogether.  Correct what you know to be wrong with your celebrations, but celebrate what you know is right!

By the way, if you’re interested in what I think the story should look like, read my article on the “The Real Nativity Story.”

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Rounding Third and Heading for Home!

(Softball is like life!)

My dad is an ASA (Amateur Softball Association) Hall of Fame umpire! I grew up in the 60s watching fastpitch softball in and around Decatur, IL. Many weekends every summer were spent watching the game. The past three years, my two brothers and I joined dad in watching the NCAA Women’s College World Series, played at the Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. The first two years, we were at the stadium with several thousand others, but this year we joined the 90 year old at our sister’s house in Arkansas where, like millions of others, we watched the tournament on television.
On my trip home, I was mentally preparing the devotion I was to share at our church that evening and it occurred to me that softball (or baseball, if that’s your preferred sport) is a metaphor for life.

Here’s my take on that:
The crowd, whether at the stadium or at home with their televisions, just watches. They don’t play the game because they are NOT on the team. They will never make it to the dugout (or clubhouse if you are the MLB fan), because that is reserved for the team. Only the team gets to go there! The crowd may enjoy the game – cheering on the team, second guessing the coach and players, criticizing the umpires, etc. – but they’ll never get into the dugout because they aren’t on the team! The dugout (or clubhouse) represents heaven. The vast majority are only spectators. They enjoy watching the game and might even talk a good game themselves – even critique God and Christians (the Coach and players) – but they will never get to heaven because they are NOT on the team! Jesus said in John 14:6, that He is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him! He told a religious leader (recorded in John 3) that he had to be born spiritually, from above, or he would never see heaven. The Bible clearly, repeatedly, explains that God’s “dugout” is only accessible by the team and one only gets on the team by grace through faith – confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior!
Sadly, most of the world will never choose to join the team. However, even that is not the end, nor even the immediate goal. It is not enough just to be on the team! It’s not enough just to be guaranteed a seat in the dugout! The team is there to play the game – even to win the game! And to win the game, you must score runs! Someone has to eventually cross home plate! The more, the better! If no one scores, the team loses! Oh, the players are still on the team – still have a place in the dugout – but they lose the game! You have to score runs. You have to cross home plate!
But to do that, you have to make it to first base. That is not enough, but you have to start with that. You have to get to first base, then second base, then third base, and only then can you head on into home and score. In softball, the bases are but little square pads in various places on the playing field, but what are the bases in life?
I think first base is personal growth. Remember, only those on the team can actually expect to reach even first base. You must take some responsibility for your own spiritual growth. Read and study the Bible, pray, and worship. Learn more about God and how you should live. All these things you can do for yourself. Learn, grow, start becoming the player God wants you to be. That’s first base and you must get to first base or you’ll never score! You cannot stay on first, but you must  get there! You have to move on. Nobody wins if you never leave first base! You must get to second base!
Second base, to my way of thinking, is corporate growth, or church growth – involvement with the others on the team. There is no such thing in the Bible as a “Lone Ranger” Christian – and even he had Tonto! No ‘lone wolves’ – no ‘go it alone’ Christianity. The Bible speaks of believers as a family, members of one body – Christ’s body, and even as the bride of Christ. Never complete when alone. Always in conjunction with the rest of the team. The New Testament says over fifty times to do specific things for one another. So, second base consists of our involvement with others on the team – group Bible studies, prayer meetings, mission trips, and fellowships, for example. Being involved in VBS, church camps, work days; singing and praising the Lord (congregationally, in choirs, anything but a solo means you’re working with others!), helping neighbors and others in need. Too many ways to mention – so many ways to be involved with others. YOU need the church and the church needs YOU! Church involvement and interaction is second base. In order to score, you’ll have to get to second base.
But you can’t stay there, either! No one scores by staying on second! You must get there, but you have to move on to third – and you can’t skip ANY bases! Third base is leadership. That can be many things. Preaching, teaching, leading worship or prayer groups, witnessing, and on and on. My point is that you must move on from just involvement with others to, at least in some areas, actually leading the others. On third base, YOU are the teacher or YOU are the witness, the deacon, the trustee, the choir leader, etc. You’ll still be a learner, a team member, a disciple – but you’ll also become a discipler!
However, in life, as in softball, you don’t score a run by staying on third base. Oh, those dreaded words from the announcer at the close of an inning, “…and one man left on base.” It means someone COULD have scored, but didn’t. Games are lost with someone left on third base!
So, what, you may be wondering, does it take to score? If personal growth is but first base, church involvement is second base, leadership is third base, and getting to heaven is the dugout or clubhouse, then what does it take to cross home plate!? What scores a run and wins the game?

Becoming like Jesus! The real goal of the team is to win the game. Scoring runs wins games. Team members score by becoming like Jesus. Romans 8:29 tells us that. This is a made-for-softball paraphrase, but it says that God chose some to be on His team in order to become like His Son, Jesus! In Philippians 2:5, Paul tells us to have the same mindset as Jesus. In 1 John 2:6, John wrote that those who are really on the team are to live like Jesus. I can’t yell it loudly enough from the stands or even from the coach’s box as a pastor – “the goal is NOT getting into the dugout! (That was guaranteed when you joined the team!) You have to score! The goal is to be like Jesus!”
You cannot get into the dugout (heaven) from the stands. You sure can’t score (become like Jesus) in the stands. You have to join the team and play the game. You cannot score if you don’t reach first base. You also can’t score unless you advance to second and third! And even then, you keep going. But what else is there? What have we NOT covered on the other three bases?
It could take a whole book, not just a blog, to cover it all! It could take a lifetime of learning and doing to understand it all. But to point you in the right direction, let’s think about Jesus. Become like Jesus. In character, attitude, world-view, values, love and wisdom, and so much more! It’s not so much about doing, though Luke said of Jesus that He went about doing good (Acts 10:38). Jesus did good, because Jesus is good! Try to be like Jesus. He did personal growth, so you must, too – first base! He was involved with others, so you must be, too – second base! He taught, led, and discipled others, so, again, you must aspire to that as well – third base! THEN, do whatever else it takes to score – to be like Him! Don’t just try to do like Him, but be like Him!
Maybe you’ll run across home plate as you score. Perhaps it will happen so easily that you can just trot on across the plate. Maybe you’ll have to slide or maybe you’ll fall and have to crawl the last few feet! But whatever it takes – score!

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Enter and Sign in, Please…

Those of us who grew up at Forsyth Baptist Church in the 60s shared several “dads”.  They all took turns teaching us, leading in our church activities – we called them ‘socials’ back then – and helping us grow in our faith.  Many of them – probably most of them – are gone now and another went to be with Jesus yesterday – Scott Spriggs.  Besides being a teacher and a deacon of the church, Scott led the music worship for years.

A couple of other staples of growing up in a small mid-western town in the 60s were Halloween traditions and a tv game show called “What’s My Line?”  Believe it or not, these all tie together!

On the game show, a panel of celebrities questioned various contestants in order to try to guess their occupations.  The host would call the contestants to the stage and instruct them to “Enter and sign in, please.”  They would write their names with chalk on a blackboard – I know, the 60s, right!?

At Halloween, we would dress up and go from house to house throughout Forsyth for Trick or Treating and fill up our goodie bags with tons of candy and other treats.  We would also carry a concealed weapon!  A bar of soap.  The “trick” of the season was to soap windows without getting caught.  Nearly everyone would try to chase you off before you could do much soaping.  A few really meant it, but I think most enjoyed the chase as much as we did.  At the Spriggs’ house, however, Scott took a different approach.  He would greet us at the front door, point to the big picture window next to it, and knowing we were armed, say, “Enter and sign in, please!”  Which I did – though I was too smart to sign my own name!

When I heard that Scott had passed away, I pictured the gatekeeper of heaven (though I really doubt one exists since trusting in Jesus is the only way in) greeting Scott and saying, “Enter and sign in, please!”  Scott would reply that there was no need to guess his “vocation” (see Eph. 4:1ff) – it is no secret.  I am sure that Scott sang that old song a time or two at church – “It is no secret, what God can do.  What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.  With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you.  It is no secret, what God can do.”

There is no need to bid Scott an “RIP”, because that’s part of what heaven is all about!  So, I’ll just say, “Thanks for all you did and see you later!”

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Happy Anniversaries!

I’ll have two anniversaries this month!  The first and longest-running is Jan. 17, which this year marks 42 years of marriage!  It has been a good run so far – I think we’ll just keep going!  “For richer – for poorer”, so where’s the “richer” been?  “For better – for worse”, it’s mostly gotten better through the years!  “In sickness and in health” – we’ve both been mostly healthy until recently.  And that brings me to the second anniversary.

Two years ago on Jan. 19, I walked into our local hospital with upper chest pains.  It didn’t seem too serious, but enough so to have it checked out.  Tests showed something amiss with my heart and blood pressure, so I was sent on to a bigger, better-for-heart-treatment hospital.  A heart cath the next day showed multiple blocks in a few arteries.  I had had no heart attack as yet, but three days later I underwent a triple bypass!

These past two years have been a whirlwind!  I think they may have been the busiest two years of my life!  They were filled with exercise, increased travels, and increased work load – both physically and spiritually (I am a minister and a writer).

I am quite sure that when I got married, I was not ready for all that we would experience over the next 42 years!  No one could be.  I am equally sure now, that I would not have been able to do all that I needed to do these past two years, if not for the bypass.  Many thought at first that perhaps the heart thing was God’s way of slowing me down for health reasons.  Turned out, He was fixing me up in order for me to do even more!

I think maybe that was what the marriage was, too!  He was fixing me up in order for me to do even more!  You know – two become one… two heads are better than one… there is power in numbers… strength in unity…  that’s all been true and very necessary!  AND a good strong heart helps make both anniversaries keep on going!

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In Defense of Trunk or Treat

Do churches really condone going around dressed up like ghosts, witches, monsters, devils, and all sorts of evil characters?  Is it another case of “if you can’t beat’em, join’em?”  Are churches simply compromising with the world in order to attract a crowd?

Maybe.  But then, maybe not.  I can’t speak for all churches.  For that matter, not everything that calls itself a church is in fact really a church.  All I can really speak for is my church and those I’ve heard from personally on the subject.  And we are NOT interested in Halloween!  That’s right – we are NOT interested in Halloween!

However, the kids in our neighborhood are.  Their parents and grandparents are, too!  And WE are interested in  THEM!  They need to hear that God loves them and so do we.  They need to know that in a world filled with hate, fear, and harm, there are those of us who still provide love, peace, and safety!

We don’t think that hiding inside our churches and ignoring the world teaches that.  So, we line our parking lot with cars and vans filled with goodies and prizes in a fun and safe environment and invite them to come and enjoy!  Poor kids get more candy than they can afford.  They learn there is no difference between them and those who “have’ already.  They learn the truth about God’s love, that it is given unconditionally to all who will just reach out receive it.  They learn that you don’t earn love, it is just offered.  They learn that our church people care about them and that they are welcome at our place.  They are invited to come back and learn even more.

That all sounds like good stuff to me – not evil.  It does NOT sound like we even condone the evil.  It is all around us.  We can’t ignore it.  We must not hide from it.  We don’t approve of it.  We shun it.  We will fight it when we can.  But sometimes we fight it by just out-playing it.  We overcome it with good.  The only way to dispel darkness is to shine light.  That’s what we do.  And the world sees that with us, there are no tricks – just treats!  And so it is with the God we serve!

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