A Shepherd Remembers
My father gave it to me when I was twelve. That’s the age a shepherd receives his own staff and it means you are old enough to have the late night watch by yourself.
Each of us has our own staff. All of them are different and they represent who we are. Usually a father picks the particular branch of the tree from which the staff will be carved. A shepherd’s staff is really special and we use the same one all of our life.
But for years I did not have mine. You see I gave it away only to have it returned. It’s been years now and that eager twelve year old body is now tired from standing watch on long nights. But I’m not too weary to share a story that changed my life so many years ago when I first went down into the town.
It was my turn to keep the night watch while the others slept. The night was clear and a bit cold. Leaning on my new staff I knew that I must be careful not to fall asleep. Shepherds love our sheep but we also know how stupid they are. One of them will often wonder off in search of most anything; a distant patch of grass…a sound that leads their curiosity to places where they can fall into deep crevices and one of us has to get them out…they just don’t pay attention.
And then there are the wolves that prey on the flock. Over my years I’ve had to fend off the attack of wolves that would wreak havoc on the sheep. For many of those years the staff I used to defend our sheep was not this one but I’ll tell you about that.
To this day I cannot really explain what happened late that night as I stood alone watching our sheep. The voices seem to come from, well, the sky. It was one of the brightest evenings I could remember.
At first I thought it was the wind making its way through the small tress and undergrowth. I thought perhaps I had drifted off to sleep only to awake in the midst of some dream. But then the voices grew louder and all I can say is that it was as if the stars started coming closer and became brighter.
I was new at this being alone with the sheep and being responsible for their safety. I had to keep my senses. At first I wanted to run back to the others who were now asleep around the embers of the fire but I knew they would consider me filled with childish imagination.
But my choice was made for me when the light became so bright that it woke my father and the others. Of course it was not just the light it was the voices, the singing, and the words.
I looked behind me and there stood the others. No one said anything. There was nothing to say. As we listened fear became our companion. The light became almost blinding.
And then came the words, “To you is born a savior…do not fear…go down to the town below and find him…he is the one you’ve been waiting for…and so that you will believe, here is a sign for you….the child will be in a manger…go…tell everyone you see what you will see down in the city of David…”
Then the voices filled everything. They filled us. There are no words to describe what we heard. The only thing I can remember that we kept hearing over and over was, “Glory to God…Glory to God.”
We all knew that the instructions made no sense. We were not welcome in any town. Below us was Bethlehem but we knew that to go there was to risk ridicule. The religious leaders considered us unclean and most people assumed we were thieves and vagabonds. We were used to such accusations.
My father helped me understand that to be a shepherd was to have no place that was really home except to be with each other and our sheep. The people in those towns had no use for us but they needed our sheep even though they despised us. The people purchased our sheep for their religious sacrifices but they desired that we be invisible servants if anyone asked where the sheep came from. Those who bought our sheep had no understanding that we loved the sheep as a parent loves a child but we had to make a living.
So why did those voices from heaven come to us? No one would believe what we heard and saw especially if it came from the lips of shepherds.
Although my father was not allowed to go to the synagogue his own father had taught him the stories. His father knew a man who was a Rabbi and the Rabbi befriended my grandfather. This particular religious scholar was a kind man and though my grandfather could not read the words on the sacred scrolls, the Rabbi read them to him and for him.
So my father said to me after the voices seemed to somehow go back into the heavens from which they came, “Son these voices tell of the one I told you of. Your grandfather told me what the Rabbi told him. This child is the one we’ve been waiting for. This manger child is the deliverer.”
I looked into his eyes and said words I now hold near to my heart, “But father how is it that we are the ones invited? The child surely is not for us.”
My father’s words still live with me in spite of the years gone by. He said, “O my son that is what is so wonderful. It seems that we are the first to know. The Rabbi told my father and your grandfather that the promised one would be a shepherd for his people and that he would especially come for those who were forsaken and on the outside. Do you now see why shepherds are the first to know?”
We went to the town as the voices instructed. I was afraid we might be driven away as we had been before in other towns but it seemed that all of Bethlehem was asleep. My brothers told me of the census and how so many had come into this tiny village so I was surprised that the town was so quite.
“How do we know where to go,” I asked my father. “I’m still hearing the voices,” is all he said. We led our sheep to the edge of the town and it was there my father pointed with his staff to a lantern burning in a stable. I remembered that earlier the voices said the child would be found in a manger so we walked toward the light.
She was bending over the manger when I first saw her. She looked up and did not even seem surprised to see us. A man was standing behind her. My father stepped forward and spoke some words to him. It was then I saw the man smile and gently shake his head.
I leaned against my father’s strong back and stood on my tip toes to see what I could see. There he was, the manger child. Something came over me like the fires that sometimes break out in the valleys when the grass is dry.
As the others in our band knelt down near the manger I stepped forward. My father motioned for me to step back but I was lost in the wonder of it all.
I walked over to the woman and simply said, “My father said that your child would grow up to be a shepherd…a very special shepherd. He will need a staff. This staff is a very special shepherd’s staff. It is mine but I want your shepherd to have it and when he gets older tell him that another shepherd gave it to him on the night of his birth.”
She looked into my eyes with something that I can only describe as love in motion. She reached toward me and gently put her hand to my cheek.
She spoke in a tired whisper, “I know this staff must be valuable to you so what a gift it is. I will keep it and give it to him when it is time for him to tend his sheep.”
That was years ago. I grew up and became the lead shepherd of our gathered families. It was my task to sometimes sleep in the opening of the stone enclosure we call a sheepfold. That way I was the gate through which the sheep must pass. I kept the sheep in and the wolves out. Any person or any predator would have to get past me to get to my sheep.
So the words he spoke that day so many years later sank deep into my soul when I heard him talk about being the good shepherd who was the gate for the sheep. I had tried to keep up with his movements and his teachings. Word had quickly spread about the way he could touch people and heal them.
Rumors of him quieting storms and even changing water into wine were spread among the many people who came to hear him speak in order to discover if he really was the long awaited one. Very view of those people knew of the night of his birth even though we told everyone who would listen. Most people did not believe us so it was only much later after he chose followers and started teaching that people began to ask if he really was the deliverer.
I would go listen to him whenever I could get away from the sheep. The crowds were often so large that I had to struggle to get close enough to hear his words. And if the religious leaders were present I had to worry about their judgmental stares but I decided that did not matter anymore. I was tired of being viewed as one who was not worthy. After all I knew who he was before they did even if they did not believe our stories of stars that sang and voices in the night.
So it was that one day that as I was listening to him he said that he was the good shepherd and that he came to be the gate through which the sheep could come home. As he said those words about being a shepherd my heart sang like the night long ago when it seemed that angels broke lose from heaven. His closing words were the ones I remember most. He stopped speaking and became silent for what seemed like a long time. He looked off into the distance as if his mind was far from the place.
He then looked back at the people who were listening intensely to him and he said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” It was then I noticed the staff in his hand. My old eyes filled with tears. It was my staff. I looked down at my feet and prayed softly, “O God may my staff help him lead us.”
When I looked up he was standing in front of me. I could not believe that this was the child of the manger whose mother I offered my shepherd staff to so long ago.
He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “You’re the one aren’t you?” Before I could answer he said, “My mother told me of that night and of how you were the first to come. It was one of her favorite stories to tell because of what you gave to her. I have used this staff these years not only to lean on but to…well….to try to be a good shepherd.”
That’s when we both smiled a smile of recognition that only the two of us could share…shepherd to shepherd. He then did something that allows me to tell you this story. He handed me my staff and said, “I want you to have this now. I’m going to Jerusalem and will not be coming back this way so I want it to be yours again.”
I wanted to argue with him and tell him that the gift was his to keep but somehow the words did not come. As he turned to walk away he smiled and said to me, “You are a good shepherd too you know.”
Word came to me later about what they did to him in Jerusalem. What did he do to deserve crucifixion? I will never understand why they killed a man who came to be the long awaited shepherd for us all. Did they not know how much we need a shepherd? Some people claim that death could not hold him and that when grieving followers returned to his grave they found that the tomb was empty. Others say it is just wishful thinking by people who hoped he was what he was not.
But I know who he was and who he is. I was one of those lucky shepherds on a hill who were told to go down to a town to discover a shepherd born in a manger. As I hold my staff…his staff… I thank God that I was able to stand that night long ago beside a manger on ground that was holy. Voices that seemed liked angels told surprised shepherds to go tell the story about what we would see. So hear these words of a tired old shepherd who once gave his staff to the shepherd who came to save us all. He is the manger child who is the good shepherd.
I’m one lucky shepherd….
(the song “Go Thee Down” is now sung)
Just a lucky bunch of shepherds on a hill
Watching over their flocks with a fire against the chill
And then the sky opened up with a heavenly light
And before them stood an angel with a message in the night:
Go thee down into the town
There’s a child there you’ve really got to see
Be not afraid but be excited
You’re the first to be invited
Go thee down into the town
And once you see him tell everyone you see
He’s the one we’ve waited for
We’re not waiting anymore
There’s a shepherd born to show the way
to you and me
(Ricky Skaggs: Go Thee Down/ rest of the song can be
Found on Y Tube/ Advent Shepherds 2008)
Monday, December 24, 2012
Sunday, December 16, 2012
I Always Wanted to be a Shepherd
When it came time for the children’s Christmas pageant I always wanted to be a shepherd. First of all there were no speaking parts for shepherds. An angel usually got to make the ancient announcement which sounded something like, “Unto you a child is born…go to Bethlehem and see the child in a manger who is Christ the Lord.”
Then another angel might wave her hands like so many wings and announce, “Glory to God in the highest and peace among men.” Back in my day we did have inclusive language so it seemed that the peace was just for men. Modern translations accurately translate the angelic announcement so that the peace is for all “people.” I wondered as a child why Jesus just came for the guys.
Anyway I wanted to be a shepherd because they got to just stand there dressed in something that resembled a bathrobe and simply look and listen to the story without doing much of anything. I hope that you are not going to do that this year?
Are you going to listen to the Christmas proclamation and not do much of anything but observe a nice story? It is true that in the original story the shepherds go to Bethlehem and check things out but you still better take another look at wanting to be a shepherd.
Shepherds in Jesus’ day were the in the lowest social class of people. They were considered to be untrustworthy and often grazed their sheep on other people’s land. From that day long before when David recounted his own days of being a shepherd and wrote the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want,” the life of shepherding ended up being looked down upon.
As the people of God settled down into towns the nomadic life of a shepherd was out of place. Shepherds were often accused of stealing and sometimes the accusations were true, but even if they were not the people thought of them as roaming band of people with no ties to the families in most towns. Shepherds were considered unclean by the religious leaders so they were not allowed to participate in any religious ritual or practice. In one religious code it said that if you came upon a shepherd who had fallen in a pit you did not have to help him get out.
According to Jewish guidelines a shepherd could not testify in court because they had no civil rights. So why in the world would God pick shepherds to be the first witnesses of the event in Bethlehem? I mean who would believe their story? The witness of a shepherd does not count.
But according to Luke shepherds are picked to hear the angel’s song of “Glory to God in the highest. To you is born a savior.” The lowest are picked to hear about the highest.
So here is the good news. Life is a wonderful gift but we cannot avoid the lowest parts of life. This week I looked into the eyes of a person battling cancer and heard a testimony of how it felt to be low. We were brought to unimaginable lows this week as we heard the news of innocent children being gunned down at a school. We collectively felt lost for any words to describe how low those parents must feel.
We who so desire to have guns to protect ourselves live in a culture of violence where the right to possess such weapons so often leads to the access to rage that misuses the right. But when it comes to ways to control and prevent such horror we seem to be low in ability. So we continue to be brought low as a people not only by the rage of those we do not understand but also by our own inability to know what to do about our rights and power.
Each of us today can describe a time when we were brought low by life. In those moments of illness or loss or unfairness we realize that when it comes to control our status is rather low. We fool ourselves into thinking we have control in order to give ourselves security. In so doing we build a life around us full of material things and titles and money. But when the unfairness of freedom breaks down our walls and breaches our damns of control we find ourselves awash in what might be termed the lowliness of life.
So now do you see why God picks shepherds to hear the news? Listen; life is wonderful. Let’s not sit here today and get all down and out because of he inevitable low points in life. After all we need to remember that we never asked for life and life is a gift from God even with all the unfair things that happen. Gratitude is the antidote for the sadness and darkness because it is gratitude that reminds us of the joy, the light, and the gift that life is. We need to say thank you every chance we get and not forget that all of life is a grace-given gift of God.
But the Christmas story reminds us that God first comes to the low places and the low people. Shepherds hear the news and discover a couple huddled in a barn. The shepherds then down into the town where they were not really welcome to discover a child laying in a feeding trough for animals. God comes to our low places to say and even to sing, “Glory to this world…my child is born in a barn and yes the first witnesses are lowly shepherds…get it!! I have come for you on days when you can sing ‘gloria’…and I have come on days when you cannot think you can sing….but on any day you can sing even if its hard because I have come for all your low times…so sing…you are not alone…Christ is still your savior.”
So I share with you my Christmas poem since I always wanted to be a shepherd and now find myself working for the great shepherd of the sheep as one of his assistant shepherds. So this is for you…
Now It’s Time for You to Sing
Something so big has happened
but you must seek
it in small ways
Heaven has broken open
and stardust now fills
the vacant places
Words cannot contain this
encounter of earth and sky
but words must be used
Only angelic voices can
dare speak what
might be- that now is
And so, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”
Glory to God in the highest
fills the sky
where shepherds quake
Who are they to hear such
a shattering of all that is
for what shall be?
And yet to the lowly comes
that which will elevate all
who need to lift their heads
He is the child of the universe
born so meek that
some will pay him no mind
But listen to the song
of the stars-
They can’t help but sing,
For you and all he has come
So that worship can now be
of something other than
the little things we make big
Glory to God in the highest
so that the lowest will know
of love’s penetrating power
Twas not just the angels
that sang that night
but all creation felt a chorus
that shepherds found themselves
so they went to a manger
Now it is time for
you to sing
for to do so is to worship a power
bigger than your small life
But for you and our world
God became a small life
that all might be lifted up
So lift your weary heads
O world that often feels
Christ is born
Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Glory to God in the highest
God became the lowest
you and for me