Shepherds and Great Joy

I’ve always liked the book of Luke most of all the Gospels. Somehow Jesus seems more relatable to me in Luke and not as distant as he can in some of the accounts. In particular, Luke tells the story of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in a poignant way. As a Gentile and a physician, he saw the world through a different lens from that of the Jewish Gospel writers. He described Jesus’ birth plainly, with details noticed and collected by a scientific mind, apparently appealing to other non-Jewish people like me. He starts by telling about John the Baptist’s unusual conception and birth, the angel’s visit to Mary and her reaction, and Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for the census. 

A Flair for the Dramatic

Among all of those details, we find a particularly dramatic scene: a group of shepherds sleeping  and watching their sheep on a hill outside town wake to a terrifying sight. A sky full of angels make an announcement. Of course, the angels’ first words are, “Don’t be afraid.” A blinding light on a dark night would frighten anyone, especially if it were accompanied by supernatural beings. The angels continue by telling the men that they bring good news. Specifically, they describe this good news as bringing “great joy for all the people.” The shepherds hurry into town to see this baby born to bring them great joy.

Old News but Good News

A lot has been written and sung and painted about these shepherds. None of the details from the paragraphs above are new to us. The story has been told for two thousand years, and shepherds are included in the telling nearly every time. We’ve probably all heard that the shepherds were smelly people, some of the lowest of society. They weren’t welcome in town, and they weren’t wealthy by any means. Shepherds were known as troublemakers, rough transients, undesirables. Think gang members, teenage guys hanging out in the park after dark laughing and playing loud music, homeless people on the street corner asking for donations to their food fund. 

Or maybe they were like today’s former third world slaves who escape from bondage to try and make their way in the world. Maybe today’s “shepherds” owe more money they can ever pay back and wonder where their next meal will come from. Maybe they’re single moms with too many mouths to feed or a small family trying to put two kids through school. Maybe they’re refugees at a border or immigrants sharing a cramped apartment with two other families. Maybe they’re exhausted suburbanites working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Who would God would choose to announce his good news to first now?

Everyone is Included

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story in Luke is how it seems tailored to highlight the inclusion of the less-than-remarkable person. The shepherds are the lowest in society. Mary and Joseph are regular people. There’s no real evidence that they were more special than any other Jewish couple of their time before their designation as the parents of Jesus. Later, at the presentation of the new baby Jesus at the temple, Anna and Simeon, two elderly people who apparently spent most of their time just hanging out there, affirm the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. All of these were unlikely characters included in the greatest story of all time.

If we’re not careful, we see the Christmas story bathed in holy light, but when we read carefully, we see that the participants, including the shepherds, were ordinary people chosen to be part of an extraordinary story. Not only that, but the very one they went to worship later identified himself as one of them. He didn’t call himself a king, although he could have legitimately claimed that title. Instead, he called himself the “Good Shepherd,” associating himself with the low levels of the social structure. That inclusion of all is something I want to be part of this Christmas and throughout the year.

Perspective

Twenty years today!

Today Andrew and I are celebrating our twentieth anniversary. Our plan: taking our youngest and her friend to see the live-action version of the movie Aladdin. While that doesn’t sound too romantic, it is a bit sweet since watching the cartoon version was one of our first real dates twenty-six years ago. Not only have I been married a really long time now, I’ve recently begun to realize that at forty-seven years old, I am smack dab in the middle of mid-life. If I live as long as my grandparents, I’ve got anywhere from thirty-two to fifty-four more years left. I am at the unique point of having enough time behind me to have a little perspective but enough time ahead to implement some of that perspective and see how it plays out.

The Past Perspective

I grew up in a conservative Christian church. I went to a Christian college. When I graduated, I moved to Ukraine to be a missionary/teacher. As I got to know Ukrainians, I began to hear their perspectives on things like how American politics affected their country. I learned that many people there did not like Ronald Reagan, who was a hero in the part of the US I came from and in my own family. I had hardly met anyone who did not like Reagan at that point in my life, but when I moved to Ukraine, I learned that many of people there blamed his policies for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political chaos and extreme inflation that hit Ukraine as a result. I learned that the public sentiment toward Mikhael Gorbachev was also negative for the same reason, although people here in the US had favorable attitudes toward him.

Living in a different culture did not just lead me to question what I believed about my country, though. I attended church every week in aUkrainian church similar to my own in America, but as time went by, I noticed some differences. They took communion from one cup, which they passed from one person to the next. I often tried to sit near the front during a service when communion was served in an effort to get the cup when it was still fresh! Not only that, but they used wine in that cup, so I had my first taste of alcohol in church. This differed greatly from my church at home, which taught abstinence from alcohol so thoroughly that they used grape juice in communion. Many of the Ukrainian churches we worked with believed that women should cover their heads in worship, taking that cue from I Corinthians 11. (Look it up and ask yourself why we don’t practice this.)

Luba, my Ukrainian roommate and me. This photo was taken in 2011, so, no, I did not have that much gray hair in my 20’s…although I had quite a bit. And, of course, Luba never changes.

Change of Perspective

Experiences like these pushed me to question things I had always blindly accepted, both politically and spiritually. If these beautiful Christian people I loved believed it was acceptable to drink wine in church and expected women to cover their heads in worship, were they right? What exactly did the Bible teach about these things? More importantly, what was necessary for me to hold fast, and which of my beliefs could I loosen up on? What was cultural and what was essential? My beliefs had not been tested much until that point since I had surrounded myself with people who thought a lot like I did.

When I returned to the US, the same process happened in reverse. Suddenly, I was bombarded by teachings and opinions that seemed mired in American culture. I saw my own people slavishly following cultural norms instead of true Christian principles. To this day, I continue to hear vitriol disguised as piety, and I live perpetually amazed at how this can happen in Christian circles. I see politics mixed so intricately with faith that it becomes almost impossible to tell them apart. I hear independence and freedom preached to the extent that we forget the value of community and interdependence.

Essential Perspective

I have spent much of my adult life trying to discern what is cultural and what is Christian, whether in my own country or another. I have struggled to apply what I do think is essential. Most of all, I have struggled a great deal to love people who do not question their beliefs, people who do not see that their culturally-defined religion often is used to bludgeon those who differ.

What is essential? The very core of my answer I take from the mouth of Jesus himself, when an expert in the Jewish law asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-40).

I fear even typing this because I know there are some who will chalk me up as one of those mamby-pamby Christians who preaches all love and no truth. However, love is not mamby-pamby. It’s not weak. Love is not a cop-out. Love is fierce. Ask a mother who spends every day, all day sitting at the bedside of a chronically ill baby. Ask a dad whose girl is late for her curfew. Ask a husband whose wife struggles with debilitating depression or a wife whose husband dies unexpectedly. Love is strong; it fights; it holds on forever. Most importantly, it wants the very best for its beloved. That’s the love we need to have for Jesus and for others. That love drives the gospel. That love empowered Jesus to sacrifice everything, and that love can push us to examine our dearly held beliefs.

So on our twentieth anniversary, Andrew and I will take our thirteen-year-old “baby” to a movie and sit in comfy theater seats eating too-buttery popcorn. We will remember two much younger versions of ourselves who had much less defined perspectives on life and faith and the world and realize how we’ve grown since then and how far we still have to go. Maybe we will remember to let other people mature as well, to let them experience the love of God, the space to grow, the freedom to question, and the power that comes from the knowledge that they are loved.