A Shepherd’s Tale

I was stargazing again, though my son David said our eyes should be upon the sheep. “Wolves do not fall from heaven, they creep from the shadows of the land,” he would say when he caught me looking at the heavens. But the movement of the stars overhead always filled me with wonder. Night after night, they moved from east to west, seemingly the same, but slowing changing from season  to season. My grandfather told me long ago that the movement of the stars is like the movement of our lives: subtle and beautiful. He said we can learn patience from watching the stars. Perhaps that is true for some, but it has not been true for me.

On this night, I was fascinated by something I had not seen before. One star shone more brightly than all the others. It was as though a nail had pierced the darkness and light poured through from the great beyond. Even the moon’s light was never so pure, so white, so wholly without compare. ‘What can this be?’ I asked myself. ‘What can this mean?’

“Do not be afraid.” I heard the voice behind me and swung around, raising my staff so that I held it between my hands to ward off any blows the man might aim at me. It was an absurd reflex. Had he wished to harm me, I would have been dead. He had moved with such stealth I had not heard so much as a stone shift beneath his feet. And then the words which startled me became more than a sense of sound; they communicated to my startled mind meaning. “Do not be afraid.”

Slowly, moving in quietly from both sides, so they could asses the situation before joining me and leaving the flock vulnerable, David and the others approached. Keeping his distance, readying himself to battle any who had come to steal that which had been entrusted to us, David called to me, “What does he want, this stranger who roams in the night?”

The man turned to David. Suddenly his face glowed like that of a maiden in love, and the light of the moon showed he was barefaced, like one too young to wear a man’s beard. This confused me because he was built like a man, tall, with shoulders that could have carried even a ram. Another anomaly in this night of mysteries, I thought. He drew back his lips and smiled with delight, like one tasting the sweetness of honey for the first time.

“I proclaim to you good news,” he said, and the tenor of his voice filled me with anticipation. I knew  in that moment my life was changing forever. My breath halted in my chest. What would his announcement be?

“News of great joy,” he continued, and my heart beat loudly in my chest, “that will be for all people.” I could not breathe. Was this man a prophet? Had he come to summon me as once the mighty King David been summoned from his flock? Had the time long awaited come? I began to tremble. Fear of what the Lord might be calling me to do filled my heart. ‘Yes’ and ‘not me’ clung to one another in that moment.

“For today, in the city of David, a savior has been born,” he cried out in exaltation. “For you!” he continued. I was fleetingly disappointed, but relief then filled me like a deep breath only to be replaced by stunned amazement. A savior has been born for me, a lowly shepherd? I turned to look at David, expecting his sensible voice to break the man’s spell, but David was as shocked as I. “For me?” His mouth formed the words, but no sound came from his lips. I looked to the others and could see that like me, each believed this man had spoken to him. One by one, he caught our eyes and in his gaze I saw affirmation. Yes, he had spoken to all of us and to each of us.

“He is Messiah and Lord,” the stranger said, his voice firm with certainty and wonder and the joy of which he had spoken. I knew he believed this to be true, and in that moment, not even wondering why a God who always called men to lead his people would choose a vulnerable newborn, I believed as well. A savior, I thought. Praise God! A Messiah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I began to worship God’s holy name.

But the man had not said all he had come to say. “This will be a sign for you,” he said, as though we had been arguing with him, as though our hearts had not already told us the truth of his words. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

“No!” my mind screamed. I was suddenly alert and disoriented, as though I’d been wakened from a dream with a loud scream. The infant should be at his mother’s breast, not in a manger, I thought. What kind of fool does not know this? Does not know the baby needs his mother’s warmth and she the baby’s suckling to stop the bleeding?

Suddenly the man was joined by others like himself, a growing crowd which began to chant as though in the synagogue, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” As they worshiped God, I made my way to David. I could see in his eyes that like me, he knew all was not well.

“Let us go then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” he said. I nodded. The child’s welfare had been entrusted to our care. As he spoke, the stranger and his friends departed, faded away as though they had been the waking dream of a tired man. We knew we could not leave the sheep unattended, and so it was decided that David, Moishe and I would go to Bethlehem.

We had no trouble finding the child. The stable was outside the city walls and his frail cry filled the night, as plaintive as a bleating lamb. Outside a man squatted by the door with his head in his hands. He was weeping with despair. As we approached, he looked up and whispered hoarsely, “Go away. Let them die in peace.”

His stupidity filled me with anger and I would have called  the man a fool, but David, knowing my temper, grabbed my arm to silence me. “Why do you say that?” he asked, his voice taking on the timbre of one in the marketplace preparing to bargain with a shopkeeper for a garment made of inferior wool, but sold as the finest. The fool, we learned, was a carpenter who knew nothing of birthing, who believed the long and painful laboring, the opening of his wife’s body and all that followed meant his wife lay dying. “No man suffering as she suffered could live,” he sobbed. “Oh! God! Why have you done this to my little Mary?” he cried out.

I exchanged glances with David and Moishe. They urged him to walk with them, and as they headed into the night, I entered the stable cautiously, not knowing what to expect. A light glowed in one of the stalls. I crept toward it. As the stranger had said, the baby was clumsily wrapped and lay in the manger, his head misshapen by the birthing. Poor thing, I thought. No effort had been made to clean or dry him. I picked him up carefully, sliding one hand under his head as I lifted him, and tucked him beneath my robe to warm him with my own body’s heat.

Then, I squatted beside his mother and brushed the hair back from her forehead. A woman should be here, I thought, with this child who gave birth to a child. What can an old man do for her? She turned her head and opened her eyes. She was so exhausted, her face registered no surprise when she saw me. She simply closed her eyes again. That was not good.

“Wake up!” I said sharply, and added unkindly, “What kind of lazy woman are you? Why do you sleep when there is work to be done?” As I had suspected, she had been raised well and made an effort to rise, to begin fulfilling her daily duties though exhaustion tugged at her.

“No, no,” I said brusquely. “Just lay on your side and feed this wailing child.” She was so young, she did not know what to do, but my wife had given birth to more than one child, and I instructed her. Before she could sleep agaiin, I urged food and wine from my pouch upon her. She needed the nourishment, I knew. When none remained, I let her sleep. I could do no more, I knew. She needed a woman.

When David and Moishe returned with the man, I told him this. He shook his head. None would come, he said. “Only Elizabeth, her cousin in Judah, believes Mary when she says that he has not been with a man.”

At this, I lost patience with the man. He’d left a healthy child and its mother to died because he was too stupid to care for them. Now, he was babbling like an idiot. “Of course, she’s been with a man, you imbecile,” I said scornfully. “A ram must mount the sheep for her to lamb.”

“No,” he insisted,” she has not.” He told us of a dream he’d had. He told us of his decision to go to Elizabeth’s house to talk with Mary. He shook his head as he recalled the bizarre story she had told him about the beardless stranger who had said she would conceive a son by the power of the holy Spirit. “I said to her, ‘How can this be?'” the man said. “She had not been looking at me, but  she looked at me then. Her troubled eyes met mine, and she whispered,’That’s what I asked him when he said I would bear a son.’ Then she began to weep and said, ‘I did not know it would be so hard, that I would be so alone.’ I knew then that I must do what I had been told in the dream to do, but both of our families turned their backs on us. And I have not always known what to do.”

That is obvious, I thought.We sat together for a long time — the man, whose name was Joseph, and I. David and Moishe, I had sent back to the sheep. I turned over the events of the night in my mind, and as dawn’s first hint of pink skimmed across the horizon, I told Joseph what had brought us to him. I told him that I did not understand the mysterious ways of God, but that I believed God had sent me to help  him. I told him how to care for the woman and her son. 

All of us, I had realized, must do our part if the Savior is to live and grow in our midst. All of us. In all generations.

A Touch of Color

I painted last night. In the bathroom. Late into the night.

I had told Sara and Brodie I needed some art therapy — which was true — but I also needed privacy to work on their Christmas present. I had not expected to work in the bathroom when I decided what I wanted to give them for Christmas. What kind of gift do you give people generous enough to open their home to you? Generous enough to bear with you as job hunting stretches on month after month? To support you as body and soul heal after a couple difficult years?

I wanted to give them something special, something personal. That it would probably end up being a painting was a bit  of a no-brainer. I’m an artist. What else would an artist give? I did not, however, expect to work in the bathroom late at night with artificial light. As  I picked up the supplies I would need, I mentally scheduled time at the dining room table when Sara and Brodie were at work and the girls were at day care. One thing after another got in the way of executing that plan — I needed to work a different schedule for a couple weeks to cover for absent co-workers; Sara worked from home on one of my scheduled days; the girls were sick and needed to stay home with me on another. I finally realized I would have to work in the bathroom or the painting wasn’t going to happen.

This morning, as I pulled the painting out of its hiding place — I finally have a day at home alone — I was struck by the rich symphony of color I have managed to create. Normally, I speak of the way I was influenced by German Expressionists, who took the work of French Impressionists one step further. French Impressionists allowed us to see their brushstrokes and showed us how color created form. German Expressionists used even broader brushstrokes and introduced the use of arbitrary color.

But, this morning, I found myself thinking of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Yesterday was her feast day. In the 16th Century, she appeared to Juan Diego and asked that a church be built. The problem with her choice would be obvious to any 21st Century marketing exec. Juan Diego was a nobody; he had no money and no influence. When he went to the bishop with the request, even the servants in the bishop’s household tried to ignore him. But, Mary was persistent and Diego was obedient. Eventually the bishop acquiesced after Mary sent him roses and her image in Diego’s tilma, a cloak of sorts.

When I first heard of this, I was in elementary school, sitting in front of a statue of Mary. Teaching sisters from one of the convents (probably Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) had come to instruct us in matters of faith for a week. As the sister in charge of our class told the story of our Lady of Guadalupe, she passed out holy cards with a brightly colored image on it. What struck me most was the way she spoke of the brightly colored image on a cloak where previously there had been nothing.

I sometimes ask God to give me Mary’s faithfulness. A couple years ago, when I was meditating on the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), I came to understand the way she allowed God’s promise to unfold in her life with all of the messiness that entailed. She didn’t try to force things, as I have done far too many times (and, as far as that goes, as Abraham and Sara did — Genesis 16:1-4). Mary didn’t whine about things, another sin of which I am guilty (as were the Israelites in the desert after Moses led them out of Egypt). She didn’t allow herself to become distracted, as I do on occasion (and as David did with Bathsheba — 2 Samuel 11). Mary just lived with God’s promise, allowed it to grow within her, gave birth to it, nurtured it and watched it to grow until it had a life of its own. What steadfast faithfulness!

But, this morning, I was struck with a whimsical thought about Mary and her influence in my life. My desire to create, to write and paint, and my ability to do these things with a modicum of skill is undoubtedly a gift from God. What struck me this morning was the way he nurtured that gift in me from a young age. I wasn’t a child prodigy. I didn’t pick up a paintbrush until I was well into my 20s, and the skill I’ve gained over the years is a result of long hours of practice. I’m not — and never have been — one of those people who “can draw anything.” At the peak of my career, there was only  a 60 or 70 percent chance that any given painting would turn out well.

This morning, I realized God had nurtured that gift within me before there was any evidence of it in my life — by inspiring my little girl’s heart with the idea of a brightly colored image appearing where previously there had been nothing. That was a miracle of which I wanted to take part. And now, I am doing exactly that — creating brightly-colored images on canvas panels which are bare when I pick up my brush.

How often does God work in our lives in this way? Of all the lessons I could have learned about Our Lady of Guadalupe, I left the church that morning with a fascination with images, and today I know that was one of the ways God nurtured in me the desire to use a gift he had given me. How marvelously subtle! How marvelously circumspect! The whisper of the Lord passing (cf.1 Kings 19:11-13).

Too often, I think, we miss God at work in our lives because we’re looking for burning bushes and angels that say, “Take note! God at work!” Because we’re looking for the wrong things, we miss his gentle touch, the way he attempts to lead us with our imaginations and our hearts. I am grateful this morning, for this small glimmer of his hand at work in my life and grateful for all the hands he has used to touch my life with his love, especially that sister whose name I don’t even remember.

God is good!

Wrong Lesson

“Before they went to bed, all the townsmen of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, closed in on the house.” (Genesis 19:4)

So often, emphasis is placed on the next verse to condemn homosexuality, but this is not lust, this is a mob, a violent mob. A pogrom mob. A Kristallnach mob.These are people among whom a wild beast has been released, one that devours, one that has preyed upon many who cried out to the Lord (Gen.18:20-21). And Lot lived among them, lived with such familiarity that he did not want to leave, with such familiarity that his wife looked back with regret (Gen.19:26). He and his daughters were saved for Abraham’s sake (Gen.19:29), but they were so warped by their experience the daughters were unmarriageable (Gen.19:30-31). I find myself thinking of the Parable of the Sower (Matt.13:3-8, Mark 4:3-9, Luke 8:5-8), of the shaping influence of our environments. The Lord attempted to remove Lot from a life in which he was surrounded by evil, but Lot resisted. The angel had to seize his hand to get him to leave Sodom (Gen.19:16), and then he refused to leave the plain (Gen.19:18-19), refused to seek higher ground both physically and morally. He protected the angels, I suspect, because his uncle Abraham had sent a messenger before them, telling of the prophecy that Sara would bear a son (Gen. 18:10) and asking Lot’s protection. He may even have told Lot of his bargain with the Lord (Gen.18:20-32). Whatever motivated Lot, his hospitality was limited; he served only bread (Gen.19:3). And his own callous disregard for human life was seen in his willingness to sacrifice two young girls (Gen. 19:8), probably the daughters of slaves. Yet, we do not take from this story a lesson  that can help each of us to live holy lives. We are not cautioned to stay alert, to discern whether our environment shapes us for good or for evil. Instead, we use it to justify violence — at least in our hearts — against those created in God’s image, but whose sexual orientation is different from our own. I can’t help but wonder whether we’re learning the right lesson.