Monday, January 26, 2015

Little Flock of Dreams

I sat on my bed this morning and stared at the ceiling. A dull pain burning inside, questions and choices and whispers rolling around in my head. I wasn't thinking of anything in particular: just that I must trust, I must choose, I must surrender and be content and...

And that's when I heard it. 

It wasn't an audible voice. But I assure you that Someone came into my room this morning, sat Himself on the bed and held me in His arms, and told me a story. It all came to me clearly as I lay here, thinking only of how to cope, and it continued until the very end. When the Voice ceased to speak, I knew I had to write down what I had heard.

I did. And I called it "Little Flock of Dreams."

I pray that your heart will be touched by the Master Storyteller, as mine was early this morning.

Little Flock of Dreams

In the vast dusty desert of life there is an oasis. It’s not very big, and it sits in the dustiest and driest part of the desert. The oasis is named Imagination. It’s lush and green all the year round, and the deep blue pool in its center reflects back the bright clouds in the day and the twinkling stars at night.

This little oasis is almost my dwelling place. It is where I come in the heat of the day, where I come in the night when sleepless, and where I spend some of my most peaceful and happy hours. When the dust storms rise from the east, or the cold wind from the north, or the blazing heat from the south or the drought from the west, I come to my oasis.

I am a shepherd. I keep a little flock of dreams in the oasis called Imagination. I started with only a few, many years ago, and now I have a good collection. I love them dearly, and care for them as if I had no other care in the world. I’ve made sure that all the poisonous snakes and weeds are not to be found in the oasis, and I see that they are well-fed and happy.

But they always stay in the oasis. It is rare indeed that one of my little dreams decides to brave life’s dusty desert. I hope every day when I come to feed them that they will choose to start out of the shady oasis, but never do they do so. I must be content to remain with them until they are content to move on.

You see, I have a journey I would like to take. I’ve been told that over those mountains, far across the plains, there is a place called Canaan. They say it is lovely; lovelier than the loveliest oasis and greener and richer than the most cultivated Imagination. I have never seen it.

But they also say that the Prince of the place is kind, and He receives any who will come into His land. I have never seen Him, either, but they say He is gentle and kind. I should like to meet Him, to be His subject—but then, my little flock of dreams keeps me here in Imagination, because they are not willing to become part of life to gain Canaan. Of course, I can’t tell them about Canaan. They wouldn’t understand.

It all began one morning when I awoke and came to my oasis, to care for my dreams. I counted them all, like a good shepherd should, and I found one missing. Concerned, I looked behind every bush, and behind every stone. Not finding my missing dream, I looked without, to the vast dusty desert, and saw my little lost dream, trotting along alone in the direction of Canaan.

I need not say that I was excited. I all but forgot the other dreams and rushed after the one, thinking perhaps that I should really make it to Canaan after all.

I hurried along through the sand, trying to catch up with my little dream. It kept up a good pace, but even so I slowly gained on it. Surely, once I caught up with it, we could travel together to Canaan and be received by the Prince of the place.

But then, just before I caught up with my journeying dream, a head rose out of the sand in front of it. A large snake reared back and before I had time to think or to cry out, it had struck my little dream.

The poor little thing cried out in pain, fell to its knees. I rushed forward, shouting in anger. The poisonous beast had done its work and it glided away through the dust.

I dropped to my knees beside my little dream. Its eyes glazed over, it gasped for air, but at last ceased to breathe. I hugged it tightly to me, crying. My first little dream had died.

I carried it back to the oasis and laid it by the pool. I didn’t know what to do with it, now that it was dead. It just laid there in silence, so cold and still, and I sat beside it, unmindful of the other dreams frolicking about me. I wept.

The day wore on and I hadn’t left the side of the little dead dream. As the sun began to dip toward the horizon, I heard a throat cleared. Looking up, half in surprise and still stupefied by grief, I saw through my tear-blinded eyes a Traveller. He looked tired and weary, but a strange and warming sympathy stood in His eyes.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am a Traveller,” He replied. “I am looking for a place to sleep and when I heard your cries I came to see what I could do. What has happened?”

“My little dream was headed off for Canaan and then a snake bit it and killed it,” I sobbed, the grief freshening once again.

“Were you following it?”

“Yes, I was.” I swallowed another cry.

“Do you want to go to Canaan, then?” He bent forward, leaning on His staff with a little smile.

I nodded. “But I cannot, not when I have this little flock of dreams.” I buried my face in my hands again.

The Traveller knelt beside me, putting on hand on the stiff dream and another on my shoulder. “I know the grief is great. But you must not leave it here to rot. What will you do with it?”

Do? I hadn’t thought to do anything with it. What does one do with a dead dream?

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

The Traveller pointed toward the setting sun. “Have you made the evening sacrifice yet?”

I frowned. “What evening sacrifice?”

“Have you not heard?” The Traveller smiled. “You say you wish to travel to Canaan someday. In that place, they offer a morning and evening sacrifice of the good things that they have been provided with. There, they offer up dreams and wishes, rights and privileges, morning and evening and they are blessed.”

I looked down at my little dead dream. “How does one make a sacrifice?”

“We build an altar,” the Stranger continued, “and kill the sacrifice. Then we burn it.”

A strange sort of horror—and longing—welled up in my throat. “Burn it?” I whispered.

He nodded. “Only then is it truly a sacrifice, you see. It must be completely offered.”

I sat in silence, staring at my dead dream. I thought about what the Traveller had said. “Well,” I said at last, “it is already dead. Are you sure that I can’t just keep it here?”

He shook his head. “You may, if you like, but it wouldn’t be best. Soon the whole place will fill with such a vile smell that it may do you everlasting harm.”

I didn’t want that. “Will you show me how to build the altar?” I asked.

“Of course.” He smiled and lifted me to my feet.

In a short time, the Stranger showed me how to fit the stones together in a strong tower. He gathered some wood from my little encampment not far away and lit a fire upon the stones. He motioned to me now.

I stood to the side, holding my dream. And although I had asked for His help, somehow I couldn’t move. Tears sprung to my eyes as I watched the flames lick upwards, knowing that in a moment all of what had been my dear little dream would be consumed and gone forever.

A hand touched my arm. “It is time.” The Stranger’s voice sounded with pity, but definite purpose. “Come.”

I moved woodenly toward the flames and hugged my dream tighter to me. At last I looked up at Him. “I can’t…” I whispered, voice trailing off.

He smiled. “If you will let Me, I will help you.”

I nodded.

He put His arms around me and put His hands on mine. Together, we lifted the dream and placed it on the altar.

In that moment, it didn’t matter to me that I knew the Man so little. I turned about, unwilling to watch the final demise of my dream and seized Him, weeping. He seemed to be used to this sort of thing, and held me while the flames rose higher and higher.

“It is finished,” He said at last.

I turned, expecting to feel the terror and remorse of loss. Instead, I felt peace as I watched a brisk wind swirl the ashes toward the dusky heavens.

“So this is sacrifice?” I asked in a murmur, hardly noticing Him now.

“This is sacrifice,” He replied. “I must be going now: but do not forget what I have told you. I may come by again someday.”

I didn’t even notice Him leave. I was too lost in my thoughts. That night, I didn’t return to the oasis. I slept soundly in my tent, and when I woke I considered starting out for Canaan right away. After all, if the inhabitants were all as the Traveller I had met the night before, what would the Prince Himself be like? I wondered.

But then, I heard a pitiful call. My little flock of dreams was waiting for food. I looked to the horizon, off towards Canaan, and wished—but then, I turned to my oasis and ran to take care of my little flock.

The time passed. I never forgot that first sacrifice, with the strong hands of the Stranger helping mine to lift my dream onto the altar. But as the days grew into months I forgot the sweet peace that followed the conflagration and I remembered only the searing pain of losing my little dream. I vowed to never let any of the other die, and I tended them more faithfully still.

But despite my best efforts, my little flock began to dwindle. One grew old and died. I was sorry, but it wasn’t the shock the first one had been. As I laid it by the pool, the Stranger appeared again. With the same pity as before, He asked what had happened—and He helped me to conduct another evening sacrifice.

This time it wasn’t so hard: I watched the flames take my dream away and I felt only a twinge of pain. This dream grew old and died—and I was at peace watching it go.

But disaster continued to strike. On every hand, my little dreams were vanishing. One or two ran off into the desert: when I found them again, they were mangled and torn, their blood staining the sand. I wept with a violence of grief, dragging them behind me back to the oasis. The Stranger appeared before I reached it and He helped me carry them. As you can probably guess, we conducted another evening sacrifice that night.

This time I couldn’t watch. I was angry. Angry at myself for having let my little dreams wander off, and angry at the voracious beasts that had torn them to pieces. I wanted to seek vengeance. But the Stranger laid a hand on my shoulder and spoke words into my ear, words of peace and release. A heavy sadness replaced the anger, and soon I felt the peace again.

As the years passed and my little flock of dreams grew smaller, I still every day went and looked toward the horizon, toward Canaan. I still wanted to go: and now that the Traveller appeared so often in my oasis and told me stories of the beautiful land where one was always safe under the watchful eye of the Prince, I wanted it even more. Still, my little flock of dreams kept me where I was.

There came a day when my little flock was no more. No, instead, one little dream ran about. It was still tiny, and I treated it as I would have treated a child. I nurtured it, not really thinking it would get very big. But it grew and grew and my love for it grew greater and greater until my longings for Canaan seemed appeased. This little dream, grown so straight and tall, had a lavish amount of my attention and affection.

One evening, I sat stroking my little dream. It was sleeping. As I pondered things, I remembered the days when I had a whole flock. I remembered the first sacrifice the Traveler had helped me to offer. I remembered the ones that had followed—many over the years. I paused, looking down at my slumbering dream. I wanted to go to Canaan, and this one dream held me back. Did I really care for it as well as I thought I did?

I went to the edges of Imagination and stared up at the sky. I began to talk, as if the Prince of Canaan could hear me. “What am I to do? Shall I come? Shall I stay? But how could I leave? Leave my precious little dream to cry for me?”

In my heart I wanted the right, and each evening I began to come out of the oasis, staring heavenward and asking the stars, the skies, and the Prince who, as I thought, couldn’t hear me, what my course should be. For a long time, I received no reply.

But then, on a particularly lovely evening, the Traveler appeared in my oasis. I greeted Him warmly: we knew each other fairly well by now. He sat down beside me, beside my sleeping dream, and listened as I talked. He seemed interested in all I had to say, but it wasn’t until I mentioned my nightly prayers that He leaned in with an intenseness of desire I had never seen before.

“You truly want the right way?” He asked, eyes boring a hole into my soul.

“I truly do,” I nodded. “I have been asking for it for months now.”

He looked over at my sleeping dream. A pit formed in my stomach.

He looked back at me. “I have the answer you’ve been asking for. But first I must know if you truly want the right way. Are you willing to go the right way, no matter what it may cost?”

I looked at my hands. I looked over at my dream, sleeping so peacefully. Somehow I knew He was talking about that dream, that the cost would somehow involve it. I had been asking for an answer, true—but I had hoped all along that if the Prince would summon me, that I would be able to travel with my dream. I knew it was strong enough for the journey, and oh, how blessed it would be to be in Canaan with it!

I looked back at the Traveler. He smiled. I nodded, feeling some excitement. “I do want the right way. I do.”

The Stranger nodded. He moved over to the dream, and I thought surely He was going to awaken it, to rouse it so we could begin the journey right away.

But then, in the still evening, I watched the Stranger pull a knife from His robe, lift the head of my dream and silently slit its throat. The dream died instantly, without giving so much as a cry.

In horror and confusion, I stared. The Stranger turned to me, His posture speaking sorrow for me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. All I could see was my last precious dream: the dream I’d tended so long: the dream that had grown hardy and strong and I had longed to travel to Canaan with: this dream, dead and bleeding onto the ground of my oasis.

For a time, neither of us spoke. He first broke the silence. “It is time for the evening sacrifice.”

I looked up at Him in bewilderment. It began to sink in: my last dream was dead. And now the Stranger wanted me to offer it up on the altar. Tears filled my eyes as I sat speechless, staring at Him from within a prison of grief.

Then, the storm burst. I leaped to my feet, dashed across to my dream and catched it up to me. I stormed in sorrow, wept until I thought I should choke myself, but I could not find a solace. The blood from my dream seeped into my tattered clothes. I hugged it close, dropping to my knees, still sobbing aloud. “Why?” I asked, struggling to make myself heard amid my cries. “Why must it die? This wasn’t the answer I wanted! Why could I not bring it with me? It wasn’t a bad dream; it was strong and healthy. Oh why must it die?”

The Stranger remained silent for a long time. He let me weep. When at last some of the grief had subsided, I looked up at the Man who had taken my dream’s life. To my surprise, He stood weeping too. “I am so sorry,” He said, in a voice near a whisper. “But you asked for the right: and it was given.”

I buried my face in the blood-stained coat of my dream.

“It is time for the evening sacrifice,” the Stranger continued. “Will you bring your last dream and lay it on the altar?”

Horrible, seething pain burst out from my heart and consumed my strength. To think of my last, cherished dream going up in smoke—to see it turned to ashes and float away with the wind—I couldn’t bear. Through sorrow-dimmed memory I recalled the first sacrifice I had offered: the pain, the burning, and the peace. This was different. A wild animal hadn’t attacked my dream. It hadn’t grown old and died. Nor had I turned it out and released it myself. No, instead I had watched One I loved take its life. This was a different sort of sacrifice, and I wasn’t sure I could do it.

“I don’t think I can…” My voice caught, my grip on the dream tightened.

The Stranger came to me and put an arm around me, resting one hand on the head of the dream. “If you will let Me, I will help you.”

I couldn’t speak. I looked down at the hand on the head of my still and silent dream. And for the first time, I noticed the scar.

“Where did that come from?” I asked.

I heard Him smile. “From a dream of My own.”

Now I looked back at Him. “You have had a dream? Yourself?”

He nodded, eyes resting on somewhere far away. “I had a dream, a dream that I loved very much. An enemy stole it and threatened it with death. In reobtaining My dream, I gained these scars.”

I looked at the scar. “It must’ve meant very much to You,” I said at last.

“It did. And it still does. But directly as I had regained my stolen dream, I offered it up on an altar.”

Now I was really surprised. “You risked Your life to get Your dream; and then You offered it up?” I couldn’t understand this.

“Yes, and it was given back to Me; brighter and more glorious than it was at the first.” He smiled. “If you can believe, so too shall it be with you.”

I looked down at the dream in my arms. I looked out at the silhouette of the altar against the setting sun. And I looked back at the Stranger. “Help me,” I whispered.

Together, we took the dream and carried it. We laid it on the altar and this time, He handed me the fire. “You must conduct it yourself, Child.”

Tears flowing freely, I gripped the flaming brand. Several times I moved it forward, ready to light the pile, but each time I faltered and drew back, more tears and cries bursting from me. At last I turned to the Man who stood watching. “Oh please, can’t You light it? I just can’t.”

“You must,” He said. “But I will help you, if You will let me.”

He came up behind me, and put His hand around mine. Together, we moved the brand forward and then the pile caught fire.

I cried while the fire raged. He held me again, til the smoke ascended and the ashes swirled heavenward. I watched them go, but I didn’t feel the peace yet. “Where is it?” I asked tearily. “Where is the peace? Doesn’t sacrifice bring peace?”

He nodded, an arm still around me. “Yes, it does. But often, the greatest sacrifices are made without an immediate reward of peace following.”

I looked down at the sand. A tear drop fell and made a little wet spot at my feet.

“Are you ready now?”

I looked up at Him. “Ready? For what?”

“Canaan.” His voice trembled with eagerness.

“Canaan.” I tested the word on my tongue again, as if it were brand new. “Canaan…?”

“You are unhampered by your little flock of dreams now,” He said gently. “Your last one has died tonight so that I could take you there Myself.”

Speechless, I stared at Him.

He continued. “If you will let Me, I will guide you through the desert to Canaan. I know the way very well. You see, Canaan and the purchase of those who live there was the dream that I risked all to save. I am the Prince.”

My eyes grew wider still. This Man, in the simple garb of a traveler, the Prince? The Majesty of Canaan? The Master of Dreams?

“How have You suffered so long with me?” I cried. “Why did You not tell me who You were and commanded me to come at once, all those years ago? And yet You have returned and taught me. I do not deserve it!” I pulled away from Him now in shame.

He did not let me go. “My Child, I have taught you here lessons you will keep in your heart forever. You now know the true spirit of sacrifice—a spirit that animates all who live in Canaan. I did not want you to be out of place among My subjects. We have a long journey ahead of us, but a few years is nothing to Me, if I have taught you aright and you will come with me now.”

I broke into tears again. “I feel so ungrateful,” I sobbed into His shoulder. “I was angry with you sometimes for making me offer up my dreams on the altar, even after they were dead. And even now, my heart still hurts with the loss of this one. How could I be a faithful subject when I am so ungrateful?”

He lifted my chin and dried a few tears away. He smiled through His own tears. “Sorrow is not ungratefulness. Sorrow is natural when we lose something we have loved, even a dream. Your sorrow is not wrong: but it will become a snare if you remain here, sorrowing for what you have lost. We must move forward.”

I glanced backwards to my oasis. But only once.

The Prince pointed at my clothes. “You cannot travel in these. I have some new clothes for you.”

I looked down at my blood-stained, tattered garments. I surely didn’t want these anymore. But the blood was the last reminder I had of my dream…

“What will I do with these?” I asked, as He dug in His pack. “They still remind me of…”

“We will burn them,” He replied, straightening. He handed me a suit of white. “If you are willing, these will be your new clothes and we will burn the old ones.”

It was easier than I had thought to lay the clothes on the altar and watch them burn.

At dawn we started off. From the top of a sandy ridge I looked back towards my oasis—but I stopped short. “Look!” I cried, pointing. “What has happened?”

My oasis was gone.

The Prince stood next to me, looking down on the little camp in the desert that we had left. “It was a mirage, My Child. I came to rescue you from the desert, not from a pleasant green oasis.”

Tears stood in my eyes. I felt His scarred hand take mine, and He turned me Eastward. “Come,” He said, stepping forward. “It is time. Let us go.”

And we went.