The unscrubbed version
I remember this scene very well. If it happened once, it was repeated many times. It went something like this: Small town. I was in grade 5 and that year there was no room in the school and some of the grade fives and some of the grade sixes attended school in the Catholic church hall. At recess time and at noon hours the boys would head out to the playground to play a little ball. Baseball.
From the huddle of 11-13 year olds, a couple of grade 6 boys would step forward and be captains. And they would begin choosing teams. It was time for a game at the Catholic church hall.
The first captain would say, "I want Mike." Mike was not very big, but he was fast as the wind and could catch any grounder or flyball that he could get near, and he was tough as nails.
The second captain would say: "I want Reggie." Reggie was bigger than average, lived on a farm and was really strong from all those bales he lifted. And he could hit the ball a mile.
And so it continued. “I want Tubby. I want Donny. I want Dougie. I want Roy. The pecking order in the group was always predictable. All would be selected and I was the last pick.
I had recently moved from England and I didn’t really know what baseball and football were. And I struck out just about every time I played. I was the youngest of the boys and probably the shortest, because I had started school in England earlier and was put ahead when I came to Canada. And although I was quite outstanding at schoolwork, I found that this didn’t carry any prestige with Canadian boys. If you couldn’t skate (I couldn’t) and couldn’t hit a baseball (I couldn’t), you were a sissy.
While the circumstances may be different, most all of us have stories of a similar nature tucked away into the folds of our psychological being. Some of the stories - like this one - draw laughter, thankfully. We can look back on the experience and it really wasn't as bad as we make it sound. In fact, I worked so hard at being accepted by playing these sports, eventually I became a pretty decent baseball-player. But other experiences of rejection really are painful and sometimes the wounds don’t go away.
For it is pretty self-evident that we crave acceptance. We want to be liked. We want to be loved. Our need for acceptance is great.
Because our need for acceptance is great, when we go unnoticed, or worse yet - when we are actively rejected or excluded - it is usually very painful for us. Wounds come. Scars run deep and are always with us.
Those wounds and scars shape and mold us. They shape and mold our opinions of ourselves. They rob us of confidence and self- esteem. And sometimes, those wounds and scars cause us to withdraw from others - especially from those who may have hurt us.
Take the wound, for instance, that Kathleen Norris describes. Norris is the well-known author of The Cloister Walk, a New York Times best seller for quite some time. In the pages of this book, she shares her story of rejection. Hers has to do with childhood, too, but it's not a funny story about being out in the schoolyard under an oak tree, choosing sides for a baseball game. Her story of rejection is one without humor. Indeed, it is one of significant pain:
I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in "His" church. Such a God was of little use to me in adolescence, and like many women of my generation, I simply stopped going to church when I could no longer be "good," which for girls especially meant not breaking the rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not complaining.
Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), pp. 90-91.
Because of this feeling, Norris said she had not been to church in over 20 years. Ironically, this one who had felt so rejected by the church for so long, wrote a best-seller on the subject of spirituality.
This is part of what the New York Times Book Review said of Norris and her work:
There is so much snide and sneering cynicism these days [regarding religion and faith in America], but talented visionaries like Norris are pointing us in another direction: toward an embrace of moral and spiritual contemplation - one that is blessedly free of the pietistic [and rejecting] self-righteousness so prominent. . . today. (From the New York Times Book Review, inside cover of The Cloister Walk.)
In case I've belabored my point so that it's been lost, let me state it simply. Someone who felt rejected by the church for 20 years wrote a book on the value of Christian spiritually, the book became a best seller, and a rejected Norris has become a modern-day bearer of good news.
I think there are some parallels between Norris and her story and the shepherds and their part in the ancient Christmas story. Unfortunately, most of us are not aware of the parallels. We just can't see it.
We can't see the parallels because most of us only know the Hallmark version of the Christmas story - the one where the shepherds have been scrubbed pink and clean. That's a good story - I'm not knocking it. Nobody enjoys that story acted out in Christmas pageants more than I do. And nobody catches the Hallmark story in finer poetry that does the professor of preaching, Tom Long professor of preaching at Princeton. Listen to how he describes it:
A gaggle of neighborhood boys, the very ones we have seen chasing a football across our yards, stand on a hillside of indoor-outdoor carpet, guarding cardboard and cotton-ball sheep with makeshift staffs, their terry-cloth bathrobes almost, but not quite, hiding their worn Adidas sneakers. Suddenly, a gauzy, angelic version of the little girl from next door bursts onto the scene, lisping the good news through the gap where her next tooth will eventually grow. Other angels will soon join her, their foil-wrapped wings bouncing wildly to the beat of "Angels We Have Heard on High."
When the angels have fluttered to stage right, the shepherds will lumber left to Bethlehem to find a fawn-eyed Mary and sheepish Joseph, whose steady downward gaze is fixed upon the blanket-wrapped doll in the plywood creche.
What a story. And we've all fallen in love with that version of the story.
But then there's the real story. Let me tell you about the shepherds of that story:
Yes, once upon a time there were shepherds like little David, who would later become king of Israel, and Amos, the prophet, too. Caretakers of honor and compassion - the kind who would look all night for one lost sheep.
But the shepherding profession between the time of David and Amos and the Christmas story had fallen on some hard times. The Roman occupation of Palestine had displaced the ethnic shepherds. They had lost their land and flocks bit by bit until they had become the poorest of the poor. Wealthy Romans and elitist Jews owned all the Judean hill country and sheep, turning the shepherds into contract caregivers of the flocks. Paid almost nothing for their work, the shepherds were forced to rob and steal to keep from starving.
The shepherds were held in contempt by temple and synagogue leaders. Having to watch flocks by night, their work kept them from observing religious customs and from attending Sabbath worship. They were not able to observe the ceremonial washings. As such, they had been deemed unclean by synagogue and temple leadership. Rejected. Cast aside. Unwelcome. Poor.
Such was the heritage of the shepherds visited by the angels on a Judean hillside at 3 a.m. two thousand years ago.
No, these shepherds were not scrubbed pink like those in the church pageants or on pretty Christmas cards. These shepherds had not bathed in months. They had been sleeping on the ground. They were dirty, and the human and animal smells would have repelled our delicate western sense of smell.
These shepherds were the outcasts, the dispossessed people of the land. They huddled over little fires in the fields to keep warm at night.
Now hear the story again - the unscrubbed version:
In that region, there were some unclean, despised, rejected shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their contract flocks by night. They were poorly paid and hungry.
Then an angel of the accepting God shone round about them. And they were sore afraid. But the angels said, "Fear not! For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. For unto you - you rejected shepherds - is born this day in the city of our well-remembered shepherd, David, your redeemer, Christ the Lord. And let this be a sign unto you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a setting that will be very familiar to you." And so, the shepherds went with haste, and sure enough, they saw the child, in the stable, with the sheep, lying in a feeding trough filled with straw.
The still unbathed shepherds ran from the scene and told the religious people who had rejected them about how the God of acceptance had sent an angel to them and how they were the first to see the newborn Savior. Everyone was stymied at what these despised, rejected, smelly shepherds told them.
The Hallmark version of the Christmas story is good, but I like this version better. I like this one better because it is the word of truth; it is a word of hope to all who have ever felt unaccepted, inadequate, unworthy, or incapable.
Quite a number of years ago I watched a movie entitled Hope Floats which really me crying at one point. In the movie the mom and dad have separated and the little girl is living with the mom. Whenever things are difficult for the little girl, she says that her daddy is coming back to get her.
The dad does come back because of a funeral, but when the little girl packs to go with her father, she finds out that he has no intention of taking her.
And the scene that had me crying was the little girl crying and yelling and hysterical. “Don’t go daddy. Please take me daddy. Daddy, daddy.”
And I’ll be honest with you. I sobbed. There were some elements that were too close to home for me, too much like a part of my life.
I know what it is like for a family member to not be there for me, for a friend to turn on me.
And so do a whole lot of us.
I hardly know a person, who doesn’t know what it is like to have been excluded, for being different, for being rich, or for being poor, for being male or being female, for being gay or being straight, for not being a Christian, or for being one, or for not having the right theology, or for not having a theology, or for your skin colour being too dark, or for being too white.
Humans have the amazing propensity to know how to exclude, judge, shame, ostracize, and look down on someone else.
And some of us, if not most of us, if not all of us have had relationships go awry with siblings, or children or parents, or spouses, or friends, or work, or church, or something
So, if you have a wound, a painful experience where someone or someones, thought you were not good enough, not perfect enough, or too different, or too good or perfect, or whatever.
If you have ever felt not accepted, or even rejected or abandoned. If someone has turned away from you for whatever reason -
then hear the word of our loving God:
"Unto you is born this day in the city of David... A Saviour, Jesus…
and he loves you and forgives you and saves you from rejection, for this Saviour will never leave or forsake you and nothing can separate you from this Saviour’s love.
May I make it clearer:
You are loved. You are special. God cares for you. God accepts you. Jesus loves you so much that he died to prove that even if you kill him, he will still love you.
And we all know the only response to such love and acceptance, is is to go like the shepherds from this place to offer acceptance and love to others, especially those who have known rejection. Amen