Into the hearts of a people always under the rule and law of foreign powers, a story is told of beauty, glory and awe coming to shepherds in the field at night. In the face of oppression, poverty, discrimination and state sponsored fear, we get a story of new birth.
As we move through Advent, we are engaging with familiar stories, at least for those of us who grew up in the church. Today’s story is about the shepherds in the field tending their flock. Because we’ve read it so often, it begins to sound so pastoral. But I’m not sure it was. Think about the context and why this was the story told.
For years, we’ve lifted up the fact that these biblical Christmas stories are not intended to be literal descriptions of Jesus’ birth. Only two gospels have birth stories (Luke and Matthew) and they are completely different. They were written after this death. As such, we think they were written to tell an important, even critical, story of faith and hope for the emerging post death community of Jesus followers. They were written, and more importantly, shared, for the same reasons foundational stories of faith are always told. To shape. To guide. To inspire.
In the most recent edition of the magazine Yes!, Ojibwa author Elizabeth Hawksworth speaks of the power of storytelling to shape identity and to heal. She speaks of her grandfather, Myles MacDougal, who as a child attended an Indian residential school, had been abused by white teachers, and was beaten for speaking Ojibwa to the point that they forgot how to speak it. Growing up herself as a “white passing” middle class family in Ontario, she didn’t even know she was Indigenous until she was in the first grade. Over the years, she noted, her grandfather began to teach her that storytelling was the vehicle through which she’d learn her heritage, and also the pathway to healing from the multi-generational trauma. Her grandfather rooted his teachings to her in the same practice cultures have used across the globe and across the centuries. “In his final years,” she writes, “my grandfather …used storytelling as a way to heal from the trauma he experienced as a child and an adult. By choosing me to (carry on this tradition), to tell her stories…we both found a way to heal.” (p.41, Yes! Fall 2018)
Thought about this way, the practice of telling these Christmas stories can be seen for its power to ground, guide and shape us. And maybe even to heal us. The value of these stories has so much more currency than a literal telling of the birth of a little boy 2000 years ago. They are just as timely today as they were when they were first told. They remind us who we are.
At the same time, for most of us, the Christmas stories are the only shepherd stories we know. Maybe even the closest we’ve ever been to sheep. I had the opportunity to live on a sheep farm just after college, deep in the fjord land of southern Norway. Sheep are not like hypoallergenic golden doodle dogs. They are often chastised as being somewhat stupid, easily lost and confused. Hence, the story of Jesus finding the lost sheep.
But, I wonder if hanging out with shepherds in the early springtime (probably when Jesus would have been born) wasn’t akin to sleeping with a wet dog outside – kinda smelly, kinda gruff, kinda unpleasant after a short time. Shepherds were people who rarely hung out with other people because of both their work and their social location.
Into the hearts of a people always under the rule and law of foreign powers, a story is told of beauty, glory and awe coming to shepherds in the field at night. In the face of oppression, poverty, discrimination and state sponsored fear, we get a story of new birth. A story of awe, powerful mystery, and unexpected hope that the God of the Universe is present. In the character assignments of these stories, the shepherds could be us, and all those feeling powerless in the face of a world out of their control.
I appreciate way of reading the story because we live with a tension during Advent, especially when it comes to Joy. There is so much to be angry about, so much to be sad about, so much to be earnest and resistant about. Shepherds in flannel robes and slippers are fine for a Children’s Christmas pageant. In fact, being with children is something that brings joy to most of us. But, how do we re-engage with the deep joy and the deep awe of Christmas’ mysteries when we are so easily angered, discouraged or overwhelmed?
I’ve been thinking about this in the weeks following our civil rights tour. The sense of luxury that I feel, sometimes, as I experience joy. I’ve been thinking about this as I watched the shenanigans at our State Capital this week when the basic tenants of democracy seemed to be trampled once again. I think about this as I encounter so many whose lives are full of stress, trouble, uncertainty, pain and grief. Where does a Sunday of Joy fit in? A Sunday of glories steaming and angels singing?
Recently, I’ve encountered several different ways people engage this question.
One comes from a prominent African American pastor, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III. He is pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago, the largest UCC church in the country and mostly African American. He said this week at a Wisconsin Council of Churches gathering that if we are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged with the state of our country…well…get over it.
Did Harriet Tubman “check out” because the US government was corrupt towards slaves? Did she refuse to go back 19 times in 10 years to help free 300 slaves because her government was a force for evil and not good? Joy, grace, hope and happiness come in the midst of the struggle, he reminded us. They shape us in the fight, they guide us on the unknown path of resistance. Furthermore, we don’t have time nor the right to be overwhelmed.
Powerful words steeped in a people’s experience of oppression; and of faith nurtured in the midst of the discrimination and violence.
Honestly, as a person of all kinds of privilege and with any number of things to be grateful about, there are times when I need to hear this. Just get over yourself and keep moving.
Another approach comes from south of us, in Guatemala. It is the formation of a Joy Committee. Singer Sara Thomsen, who was with us last weekend, tells the story of visiting Guatemala many years ago when they were in the midst of a brutal civil war, at a time when thousands and thousands of innocent citizens were murdered. The elder women in the small town she visited told her visiting group of students about the importance of a Joy Committee. Upon returning to their homes after having been run out, and as they were trying to pick up the pieces of the social and familial devastation, one of the first groups they formed was the Joy Committee. They knew if they didn’t plan for fun, for festivities, for laughter and shared community, their future was doomed. Even amidst the violence, life was too precious to not have joy.
Powerful sentiments from those who have every reason to be angry and revengeful.
There are times when I need the structure of a Joy Committee. Be intentional. Don’t let fear and anger consume my every waking hour. There is time for struggle and work. But there must also be time for joy!
Yet another story comes from Port William, Kentucky, the fictional town in a series of novels written by Wendell Berry. In his novel, Hannah Coulter, Hannah is a young mother. Virgil, her newlywed husband and father of young Margaret, has gone missing in action during WW2. In due time, Hannah and all Virgil’s relatives realize that missing in action simply means gone. Dead. Reflecting on her own journey with grief, she speaks to something we might call a quiet joy.
There have been times, then and later too, when I thought I could cry forever. But I haven’t done it…There was something else too.
The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines in the darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loves ones. Little Margaret (the child) was calling me into life.
At first…it was shameful to me when I would realize that without my consent, almost without my knowledge, something had made me happy. And then I learned to think, when those times would come, “Well, go ahead. If you are happy, then be happy”…little happinesses came to me from ordinary pleasures in ordinary things…I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not be trusted to do that, but to give unforeseen goods and pleasures that I had not thought to want (p.58)
At times, I am reminded that joy finds its way into our lives without our doing. It surfaces in our faithfulness to living, to loving, to being an honest and open presence to the world around us.
Of course, most of us find joy in different ways at different times. I suspect these three approaches to staying hopeful and joyful intermingle with each other within each of us. There are undoubtedly other ways as well.
So my question this morning is, “How do you hang onto Joy?” Today? Right now? As we begin our transition towards communion – this sacrament of grace and memory – I’d invite a moment for us to reconnect at a deep, cellular level, with what brings us joy. However deeply buried it is, I’d invite us to say, ‘hello, joy! I’m so glad to have you in my life!” I’d invite us to hold onto it through the singing Hark the Heralds Angels Sing! I’d invite us to come to the sacrament with this joy. What does it look like for you? What are the stories that help you hold on to it? How is this joy resilient within you? How can you, in the midst of all that may be hard, or bad, or confusing or making you mad or driving you to despair, claim this joy?
Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The
Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were
terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful,
joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the
Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a
manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising
God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he