Shepherds on the Second Day of Christmas

shepherd-by-robWe sang it just two nights ago: While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down… “Fear not,” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds; “glad tidings of great joy I bring to you and all mankind…”

We read together the shepherds’ emotional reaction to the angelic announcement and chorus: …and they were terrified.

We discover their immediate and subsequent actions: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about…” When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…

We know enough about shepherds in first century Israel to wonder at God trusting them with the most amazing news flash in all of history. One authority says they were “despised in everyday life.” By the time of Jesus, rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel except on desert plains. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, stated that one should never feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who had fallen into a pit. Another historian documents that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights and could not be summoned into court as witnesses. Generally, by law and by custom, shepherds were labeled as “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people. Opinions differ and speculations abound about why these reviled people were the recipients of this greatest news.

But I have another question: what did the shepherds do after they “spread the word”? These men couldn’t leave their sheep too long as they were solely responsible for the animals’ welfare. They were already living below what we euphemistically call the “poverty level” and people in that class—then and now—relinquish the privilege of option. Would you believe a scruffy homeless person reeking with pungent body odor who related such a tale?

Is there a story tucked into and under the story that Luke tells? All else is irrelevant when compared with the “greatest story ever told,” but I wonder what else God might be whispering on this second day of Christmas. Who are the shepherds in my life? Do I even stop long enough to hear what they’re saying? Do they come in the guise of children? Might I hear their news in a media report? Should I be looking for them in pictures of anguish that scar my soul? Or do I look away, turn my head, plug my ears?

What angelic message might I be missing?

Hope? You Must Be Kidding!

hopeHere we are only a few days from the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Children can hardly contain their expectation and excitement. Adults still shop for that last gift, holiday aromas ooze out of kitchens (some kitchens!) and guest rooms are being prepared for the imminent arrival of friends and family.

But all is not glitz, glamour and glory. Here in the U.S., while many rejoice in recent election results, others experience fear, sadness and depression. Children fight cancer, buses poised to deliver refugees from Aleppo are bombed, bodies and minds age, children and adults are killed as trucks plow through Christmas markets, and families are divided with rancor instead of united with respect and good will.

Was the world much different into which Jesus was born?  Religion was divided, political domination was rampant with burdensome taxation, between rich and poor existed a chasm, women were second-class citizens, often akin to slaves.

And a baby is born in obscurity, swaddled with homemade cloths, tucked into the animals’ feeding trough and—despite this contrary reality—God commissions angels to herald the birth with the message that “good news of great joy for all people” has just arrived!

Christians have the choice to believe a greater reality than the ugly and evil reality that surrounds us. We do not deny what we experience or what we know is happening in the world, but we choose to believe that in Christ was and is great joy for all people. Until we see that fulfillment, we are commissioned to work steadily and with faith to bring about what many of us pray each week: that His Kingdom will come on earth, even as it is in heaven.

For followers of Jesus, hope becomes a lifestyle, one closely tied with faith. And faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. No, we’re not kidding. We walk in hope these days before Christmas. And always.

Lesson from the Birds

winter-birdIt was the first day of relatively warm weather after a spate of frigid temperatures. You understand, of course, that “frigid” is in the eye of the beholder. To a Floridian or citizen of Zambia, frigid can mean 55 F° (13° C). For someone living here in the Rocky Mountains or for a denizen of Minnesota or New Hampshire, it’s only when the red stuff in the outdoor thermometer descends near the zero mark that we pull out those extra sweaters.

Not only had the temperature leveled off that day, but it was also the first time in many weeks that I sat quietly in my QC (Quiet Chair) for more than ten minutes. My body and soul were tired. My cushioned rocker brought comfort to the first; sunshine and blue sky glimpsed through the tall pines outside the window eased the latter. This wasn’t the time to study, read theological tomes or parse some of the Apostle Paul’s sentences. I needed to just sit and allow God to feed me from His own soul.

Scientists say that when the body has endured severe trauma—accident, major surgery, etc.—and is unable to be nourished from natural sources (food, intravenous liquids, etc.), it begins to feed on itself, thus “cannibalizing” itself. In extreme cases (such as many lost North and South Pole explorers), death eventually occurs.

Due to the circumstances of life, that’s what I’d been doing in recent weeks: spiritually, emotionally feeding off my stored resources. This is not a bad thing. God has designed us so that this process sees us through what I call the emergency seasons until “real food” can again be consumed and enjoyed. Time in my QC would become the source of my much needed “real food.”

Suddenly I glimpsed flickering movement in those pine braches. There! Small birds, first one, then another, until I spied a dozen or more hopping from one branch to another as though playing a game of hide and seek or hop scotch to an unheard melody. Released from the days of near zero temperatures, these tiny creatures danced in the pines under the sun’s new warmth. Not looking for food (though food was necessary), not building nests (though warm refuges would be indispensable), not hiding from predators (though sneaky squirrels with wagging tails lurked on the fence railing), not worrying about the next storm (though it would soon arrive). Just living, dancing, singing in the blessings of the moment.

I didn’t rise from my QC with all my needs satisfied. I didn’t experience a sudden burst of physical energy. But I remembered Jesus’ words: Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 

Look at and learn from the birds.

Hospital Thoughts

hospitalFrom November 3 through November 21, during daylight hours (and a few lit by the moon), I sat either in the surgery waiting room or at my husband’s bedside.

After that first very long day of tension waiting for the surgeon’s report (a negative report which in medical terms is positive!), I had hours to observe the people around me in the Critical Care Unit:

Our wise doctor who was first cautiously optimistic and then enthusiastically optimistic. When a return to the operating room proved necessary because of a “bleeder,” he sat watching 45 minutes before re-stitching the incision. Great Physician, thank you for this instrument of your healing.

Nurses—many who look like teenagers but who blend professionalism with gentle care and genuine interest. (One exception in this crew but maybe he was having a bad day. We saw him only that one shift.) Protect their loved ones, Father, even as they care for mine.

Patients’ friends and family members walking the long halls most often caught my attention. The elderly man and adult daughter hugging outside a room where a frail woman lay. I whispered a prayer for the mother and wife whose condition they’ve just heard is terminal. Loving Father, be their hope.

The young man in faded jeans and wrinkled plaid shirt, his long unwashed hair topped by a grimy ball cap. He had obviously slept all night on one of the hard waiting room benches and now paces the floor. Sweet Jesus, he seems so alone. Please give him rest.

Family members who inch away from a room’s closed door and I hear the words “funeral…need to call…so unexpected.” Is their loved one’s breathing now so shallow that they expect it’s impending end? God of all, be their comfort.

After three days my husband was moved from that unit to another floor where his care was still excellent but not as necessarily constant. This was a good move—it meant he continued to improve and the horizons of my people watching changed. In CCU, life and death were the constant colors. On the ninth floor I saw more the gentle hues of everyday living, the cautious—often painful—steps toward healing. Perhaps more the colors of hope as physical therapists kindly yet persistently worked toward the goal of getting the patient “out-of-here-and-up-those-stairs!”

My husband is now home and slowly gaining strength. His goal is pushups at home and treadmill at the gym (all with the doctor’s thumbs up)!

One day as I sat near my husband’s hospital bed, the western vista seen from the large windows was captivating. Instead of the usual brilliant blue of our Colorado sky, silver-white clouds hinted at late day showers. Those same clouds shadowed the mountain peaks so instead of green pines, leafless aspens and brown/gray boulders, our Rocky Mountains were a gray/black silhouette. Clouds hid the mountains’ majestic beauty. I know the trees stand tall because I’ve walked among them. I’ve touched the boulders. I’ve marveled at the now unseen deer and pica who stride and scamper on Pikes Peak. But all are hidden because of the clouds.

The hearts of people watching and waiting in a hospital are often hidden as well. I saw only the outside and could merely guess at their pain or joy. BUT the eyes of the Lord are watching over those who fear him, who rely upon his steady love… We depend upon the Lord alone to save us. Only he can help us; he protects us like a shield… we are trusting him. We trust his holy name. (Psalm 33)

Amen and amen.