Why I’m glad God included lots of normal folks at Jesus’ birth

By Blogger Daryl Geffken

Daryl Geffken

“I wanna’ be a shepherd.  I wanna’ move up to Nassau, get a nice little spread, find some sheep and tend to them.”

When confronted with his desire to find significance in the world, Matt Damon, performing the title role from “Good Will Hunting” makes this statement.  A high-school drop out, often drunk-and-brawling, sometimes in-and-out-of-jail, janitor makes a wise crack regarding his intended profession.  Clearly, shepherds are not high on the social scale.  They never have been.

In ancient Israel, shepherds were pretty much the low of the lows as well: smelly, uneducated simpletons that followed a herd of animals that could easily elicit the same description (don’t think Sunday School felt-board representations of sheep here).  But they were invited to a gathering of greater significance than any red-velvet roped party in history.  They made they A-list.  In their insignificance, they were made important.

When I take time to look up from my little world, this sounds appealing to me.

Social theorist Gustavo Esteva suggested that many people seem to share a feeling of impotence, and powerlessness.  “No longer trusting that their individual votes, their letters to their representatives or their personal activism will effect any relevant change, they are confronted by the persistent question: What can I do?”  It’s not too hard to imagine this type of question being drowned out by the bleating of sheep, or the growling of wolves.  In such a life, concrete issues rule the day.  “Common people learn to trust each other and be trustworthy… Their common faith is seldom deposited in abstract causes or phantoms, like humankind.  Instead, it is entrusted to real men and women, defining the place to which they belong and that belongs to them.”  This requires relationship within a community of real men and women.

It seems that God was ahead of the curve.  He asked real people to share a real moment: God becoming incarnate in a world where touching godliness had been relegated to those deemed important: perhaps those who generated lofty and abstract theology.

Not only did God include the peripheral, he invited a lot of them.  As the wonderstruck group discussed what they had experienced through differing eyes and perspectives, a communal process may have brought deeper understanding.  Organizational theorist Etienne Wenger made the following assertion, “Our institutions, to the extent that they address issues of learning explicitly, are largely based on the assumption that learning is an individual process, that it has a beginning and an end, that it is best separated from the rest of our activities, and that it is the result of teaching.”  The consequence of this is that most institutionalized learning is out of touch with reality and frustratingly tedious.

A vital church community realizes that learning is constant, active and social.  It asks its participants to embody the life of Jesus in all areas of thought, word and deed.  The emphasis is not upon principles, but relationship as the core of God’s work in the world today.  It is defined not by its theology, but by its behavior.  This is a dramatic departure from recent theorization about church structure, because it implies that each member of the community has a contribution to make, and is therefore a vital element of the organization to be known, rather than converted.

Volatile moments of real life show that more relevance exists outside of attempts to control one’s surroundings.  Brian McLaren wrote, “To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.”  It is messy and occurs as their surroundings and those with whom they have contact collide.  These moments are transformative and memorable as they display the constant progression of dynamics at work.

I believe that because of the manner birth of Jesus, leaders can no longer view themselves as hierarchical gatekeepers of power and skill or privileged calling.  In order to find personal and professional relevance, these leaders must place a high value on the contribution of members within a community.  Without this, a leader (like Herod of old) will forfeit significance.

By valuing each element of a society, the ability to learn, adapt and bear significance is increased.  Such value is communicated through sincerity and authenticity, through allowing for time to increase understanding, through deep listening that honors another’s perspective and encourages permission to speak freely, and a destruction of a system where certain members are deemed more necessary, more valuable than others.

In Jesus’ birth, prophetic voice from scripture is mixed with corporeal messiness.  Perhaps the shepherds could appreciate this reality of confusion, stench and miracle given their circumstances.  Perhaps their community structure enhanced their ability to understand the significance of what they were witnessing.

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