Those ubiquitous angels are back again, and this time they are talking to some shepherds out in the field. The shepherds were just minding their own business keeping watch over their sheep when a shining angel appeared in the sky. Scared the bejeezus out of them, but the angel told them not to be afraid and to prepare themselves to receive some really good news about a Messiah who has been born. A human baby.
The shepherds must have been gob-smacked, because they were focused on sheep not baby humans. They kept listening as the angel told them in sort of a bossy tone to wander off to Bethlehem to see this baby human and his parents. They were certainly wondering as they were wandering, but they followed the angel’s command, and found Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger. They reported what had happened to them, and Mary was especially touched, and pondered these things in her heart. Then the shepherds went back to the field, changed forever, still wondering. Still wandering. Still waiting.
Mary had plenty to ponder. Who were these sort of stinky individuals who came to visit her and her baby boy? Should she be afraid of them? Should she even believe them? The more she got to know them, the more she liked them. They were simple people, straight forward, lacking any pretension, excited about the birth of her son. They had traveled a long way to meet her, and they, too, had been visited by an angel. Like Mary, they had taken to heart the words of the angel regarding baby Jesus. Mary took a breath and welcomed these wandering, wondering strangers.
Shepherds tend to have some good qualities. They know their flock, and they take care of them. They live alongside their flocks, making sure that they are in green pastures and lacking nothing. Shepherds are there to guide, provide, protect, care, heal and make their sheep feel protected and at peace.
We have all had shepherds in our lives. People who lead us, who protect us, who support and defend us. People who make us feel secure. One writer puts it this way when he describes his stepfather: “He made us feel that we had finally made it to where we were always meant to be, the place where we could stop running and just relax. He made us all better than we had been, not so much by any one thing I remember him doing, but by the gentle, calming spirit that seemed to emanate from his being.” (Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, pg. 13).
I met a shepherd who changed my life while I was working on my doctorate. My seminary was part of a collegium: United Theological Seminary, where I attended for four years on campus for post graduate work, had 12 denominations represented in the student body and faculty; St. John’s Monastery, a Benedictine school in Collegeville, and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. My academic advisors wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies at the University of Chicago. I found that absolutely yawn worthy! Instead, I took a clinical residency at Hazelden/Betty Ford and moved to British Columbia before enrolling in a doctoral program that required all students to be in engaged in full time ministry. At the time I was the director of a residential treatment center for addictions in Victoria, British Columbia.
The doctoral program was a combination of hands-on work, academic study and writing. I found that Luther Seminary was offering an academic class on the writing of Hans Kung, and I enrolled. We were advised to arrive on campus a day or two early to get ourselves situated before the rather intense academic sessions began. I was rather astounded to find that my only op on for housing was a men’s dorm that had no separate bathrooms for women. The male students thought it was hilarious to bang on the door when I hung out the required sign announcing there was a woman in the bathroom. I thought I had died and gone to hell.
When I arrived for my first class decked out in blue jeans and hair down to my waist, I observed a room full of white men in clerical collars. As I absorbed the composition of the class, I was sure I had died and gone to hell. Then in strolled the tall and lanky professor clad in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. I sat through the class and took a lot of notes. At the end of the lecture, the professor blurted out, “Campbell, please stay after class.” I wondered what amazingly awful thing could possibly happen next. The professor asked me about the work I was doing in British Columbia with Native Canadians, and then he said, “Well, Campbell, what I want you to do is read T. S. Eliot and then come and tell me what you think of him.” During the course of the summer, I had the opportunity to experience one of the most brilliant and encyclopedic minds I have ever encountered. We would meet on the top floor of the library and discuss T. S. Eliot and much more. He told me he was dying, and we spent many hours discussing his impending death. He was eager to know what I had learned from Native Canadians about death. We talked about death, but more than that, we talked about life. We talked about choices we had made in our lives. He was immensely grateful that he had once been a parish pastor in Duluth. He chose not to be a full-time scholar, but to be what he called “the errand boy of the church.” He would often interrupt our conversations and say, “Campbell, always be yourself.” He reminded me that there was important work to be done in the church. He died two months after I returned to British Columbia.
In an obituary published in the New York Times, I learned that The Reverend Dr. Warren Quanbeck was an internationally known theologian who was a member of the governing commitee of the World Council of Churches and a delegate to the Second Va can Council. He had also taught at both Oxford and Cambridge as well as in Switzerland. But, to me, he will ever remain the guy in the flannel shirt who pulled me out of class to discuss T. S. Eliot, the guy who cautioned me to never try to be other than who I am. He was my loyal shepherd. His memory is, indeed, a blessing. His humility was his greatest blessing.
There is, indeed, a lot of work that needs to be done in the church. Each of is called to shepherd others in our flock, to accompany them through life and death. We are called to drop pretensions and do the dirty work of mending a broken world. We are called to serve, but to do so joyfully. We are called to be cheerful, joyful givers. As we ponder the Advent candle of joy, we realize that joy is part of the light of the world. Work is not just a mater of getting things done; it is a mater of faith, a form of worship, something to be done with joy and thanksgiving. And so while we are waiting for the birth of Jesus, let’s contemplate how we can serve God with joy. One of my favorite theologians, Mathew Fox, raises the question: “What does God do all day and all night?” His answer is: “She enjoys herself!” And Mother Teresa reminds us: “Joy is prayer—Joy is strength—Joy is love—Joy is a net of love by which we can catch souls.”
Today we light the Advent candle of joy as we await the birth of the Prince of Peace. I wish you joy on the journey to Bethlehem.