It’s a relatively modern mind that would associate a story’s truth with a its factuality. Certainly, those who told and eventually recorded the Biblical narratives did not see themselves as recapping events which could be discovered in fossil records or verified in meteorological history.
There was no journalistic standard applied in the recapping of these stories, you see. No fact-checking occurred.
For those who told and eventually recorded the Biblical narratives, it was well understood that 40 meant something beyond 40, that regaining sight meant something beyond regaining sight, that haircuts meant something beyond haircuts and so forth.
In a general way, the line that separates these two ways of perceiving (these lenses, if you will) is what we call The Enlightenment. Before The Enlightenment, humans looked to a tale for its truths. After The Enlightenment, humans looked to a tale for its facts.
So, the issue is that when we explore a pre-enlightenment story through a post-enlightenment lens, we get ourselves into endless pointless conversations such as, “Was there really a Good Samaritan who rescued a man?” and “Was there really a wayward son who returned to his father?” and, “Was there really a whale and a giant and an ark and a leper and seven horses?” and “Can women really turn into salt?”
I mean: why would you ever want to be 969 years old anyway? You think you’re tired now. You think you need work done now.
I might go so far as to say that exploring Biblical literature through a post-enlightenment lens is to twist that literature, sometimes unrecognizably from its intended meaning, and almost never without unnecessary suffering. To do so is to justify if not encourage profound cruelties in our world. Said more clearly, it’s to miss the point. It makes no more sense to search for Noah’s literal ark than it makes to search for Jack’s literal beanstalk.
A pre-enlightenment lens understands that the truth of a story has nothing to do with the factuality of a story. And this understanding remains such a passion for me because the willingness to abandon a post-enlightenment lens is the first key to unlocking Biblical literature for a new generation of seekers.
These are universal stories which have been cast and played out on the stage of life by courageous souls back then; universal stories which would be recast and played out on the stage of life by courageous souls right now.
These aren’t limited to time and space as the modern mind would have us believe. They are personal and relevant and current. And this is what it means for a teaching scripture to be experienced as “The Living Word,” you see.
So, shepherds are peasants. These are simple, hard-working, honest people, completely lacking in sophistication and education. Theirs is a world out-of-doors, exposed, vulnerable, unprotected by human mechanism.
And I have to tell you, I just love this. Like the magi of the Christmas narrative, the higher idea (and for our time together, let’s just agree that the Christmas story is – among other things – a story about a higher idea) the higher idea doesn’t always come in accord with societal standards.
How notable is it that this story didn’t begin with high priests or religious scholars? In modern terms, how notable is it that the story didn’t begin with those who’ve graduated from ivy league schools or with those who’ve climbed the social ladder?
Even today, we tend to imagine some as being just a little closer to God than others. Whether a shaman or a teacher or a mystic or a pope. We tend to imagine that Deepak Chopra and Eckart Tolle just have a little better connection than we do.
But our nativity narratives didn’t begin with high priests or religious scholars. Our nativity narratives didn’t begin with Deepak Chopra or Eckart Tolle. Our nativity narratives begin by reminding us that there is no life more deserving or less deserving, no life more capable or less capable, no life more connected or less connected, no life more worthy or less worthy than any other. Our nativity narratives begin by reminding us that in all – whether magi from the east or shepherds from a field - God is fully present and never absent.
And maybe that’s a good affirmation for you to carry. If you have ever felt less deserving or less capable: God is fully present and never absent. If you have ever felt less connected or less worthy: God is fully present and never absent.
You know, if you’re like me, there’s a line of thought that goes something like this: there are great souls – Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa and Mohandas Gandhi and so forth. And because these are great souls, they are given great ideas and noble purposes.
But I think this is really quite backward.
You see, I think great ideas and noble purposes are available to all souls indiscriminately. Great ideas and noble purposes simply are. We might say, “They’re up for grabs.” And it’s the degree to which a soul makes itself available to those great ideas and noble purposes that a soul eventually earns the earthly mark of “great.”
If Martin Luther King hadn’t made himself available to the great idea of racial equality, he would not have become Martin Luther King. And if Mother Teresa hadn’t made herself available to the noble purpose of human compassion, she would not have become St. Teresa. And so forth.
As I’ve said so many times before, it’s not so much that great works come through perfect souls as it is that great works come through willing souls.
Is it just me, or have we become incredibly busy? It seems that we’re no longer satisfied even to drive our automobiles without attempting to accomplish any number of tasks – and I sincerely hope this doesn’t describe you.
Is it just me, or have we become enamored with, even addicted to, the countless shiny objects of earthly life – with the money, the titles, the status, the accomplishments, as if dangling from some cosmic mobile above a collective crib? And yet it seems to me that the shepherds in the nativity narrative call us to remember that it’s not through our busy-ness (that it’s not through our money, our titles, our status, our accomplishments) that the higher idea would be realized.
It’s in the darkness where the heavenly light dawns; in silence where the angels’ voice can be heard. The shepherds remind us that we can’t buy it. Ours is to make ourselves available to it.
It was Kierkegaard who said, and I quote, “If I could prescribe only one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed, no one would hear it; there is too much noise.”
And the shepherds are afraid. Even when the angel said, “Fear not,” it doesn’t really help.
And this makes some sense to me, for the heavenly light, the angels’ song (for the higher idea) is no respecter of your comfort. It’s no respecter of your statistics or your excuses. It’s no respecter of your history, age or genetics. The noble purpose is no respecter of your countless arguments.
And, so the first shepherd’s response makes some sense, and I quote: “Well, I’ll go but you’ll have to give me time to lose some weight.” And another chimed in, “You know, I’ve heard you. But I think I’ll wait for an idea that leaves me a little closer to home. Something more convenient.” And another, “Well, let me get the right gifts together, you know one never arrives to a birth empty-handed.”
No – even though they were afraid, the shepherds’ response to the heavenly light, to the angels’ song, to the higher idea/ noble purpose is not unlike that of the magi: “Let’s go.” Even though they were afraid, the shepherds’ response is one of welcome.
I’m reminded of the clichéd tale of a 65-year-old man, living on a social security check of $105.00, who had a dream for a new life. So, he drove around the country, sleeping in his car, knocking on doors. He received his first yes after 1,009 no’s. And it was on that day that a man in a white suit, selling a fried chicken recipe, gave rise to an unlikely empire.
It was Henry Ford who echoed the same philosophy when he said, and I quote, “I believe God is managing affairs and with God in charge, everything will work out for the best in the end.”
Yes, in a sense, I think we’re all shepherds – called to cultivate quiet moments of openness and willingness to the incredible resources which are always at hand. Each of us is called to cultivate quite moments of vulnerability and nakedness, – moments of welcome, if you will, for an experience of wonder and awe. Each of us is called to stop until we are filled.