As we celebrate Christmas, I want to share a treasured & true family Christmas story, remembering the shepherds of long ago and hoping to be the shepherds of today.
Common, working people, busy making a living, tending to daily tasks, when they received a divine appointment in the greatest birthday celebration in history. Shepherds. Why shepherds? Multitudes of angels gathered in honor of the great sacrifice Jesus made in the form of a man. So why bring in the shepherds?
We had only been on the mission field for less than 2 months when it was Christmas, and we were staying at a missionary retreat center. A couple hours after we arrived, we were blessed to have a box delivered from our Sunday School class in Ohio. They knew our shipment was late in arriving, including Christmas gifts. With some things from family, the wonderful box, and a tiny tree left behind years before, we turned our guest apartment into a temporary cozy haven.
One afternoon we heard cries from outside. JoHanna ran to us as we passed her on our way to a large swing. In a freak accident, our four-year-old son was being crushed by the weight of a huge swing of steel and wood. We saw large amounts of bleeding. From his screams, we knew he was conscious, though we feared the worst in horrible seconds of silence. Others came as we worked to calm and free him from under the weight of the platform. A missionary woman from Wycliffe knelt and prayed aloud with me as I lay on the ground holding Jacob's hand, talking to him while the men worked to free him. God intervened; my husband and another man had unexplained strength to overpower the structure. A medical colleague pulled Jacob out and gave him a quick glance as we moved his body to car. We prayed for his life and for traffic to open as we drove. Nearing the hospital we shouted to passersby, asking for "hospital?" directions. The Lord got us there, where we walked into the ER and were seen immediately, the sound of jackhammers working in a cloud of dust just feet away.
We awaited surgery that didn’t begin until over 5 hours later. Doctors worked to care for extensive head wounds and skull fracture. We hadn’t anticipated our first hospital trip in an underdeveloped country so soon. There was no drinking water, towels, toilet paper, soap, or even band-aids. Two metal cots were provided with thin foam and stained sheets. After only 5 weeks in the country, while missing our family and home for our 1st Christmas, we could have been overwhelmed with despair.
At night in the dark room, I lay in bed listening to sounds of the sick, the traffic, and the strange languages of shy nurses in the darkness. I held Jacob closely but gingerly, amazed that my son had been spared, praying he would be healed. Our new world seemed so harshly foreign, and I feared for him. I agonized over pain he had endured and what was to come. I cried out in thanks for God’s mercy to hold back the greater force & injury. There was no caroling or sitting by our borrowed tree, just much praying and hoping. There were games and books and quiet talking and praying and much sitting close together on the metal cots. And there were shepherds, just as at the first Christmas when another young family huddled together in a foreign place, maybe feeling very alone and uncertain, longing for familiar sounds and embraces.
When we find ourselves in times of paramount events and in foreign places in life, we need shepherds. Perhaps it’s a tradition of Christmas that God sent shepherds in one of my family's moments of loneliness. Though we were new missionaries, across oceans, our shepherds came. In a different time zone, we called to our family and home church in the States. In no time at all our pastor was praying with us over the phone, as we waited for surgery. Our earthly shepherd. He had gotten news in the darkness, just as the first Christmas shepherds. They immediately said, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see …” Though he was responding to a different kind of news, our pastor moved immediately. He could’ve waited, but he didn’t. He’s a loving shepherd.
A short term missionary from our home church was also in the city for Christmas. While Jacob was still in surgery, she arrived to be with us. Good shepherds know the value of coming alongside one in need; she came immediately. The next morning, she arrived with breakfast and children’s books. It was good timing, since hospital breakfast consisted of a large dried fish, eyes, scales, and all, with a side order of day old rice. Coming from bountiful medical facilities of the US, we had no idea what we would need, so God sent a shepherd.
In the hours following, our cell phone began to ring. Friends. Mentors. Families in their own holiday celebrations. Our pastor had given our number to the whole church, to our family of shepherds, and they “came immediately.” Using technology, they stopped their work, daily tasks, regular routines, and answered a divine calling to reach out to a young family huddling together in a foreign place. The voices of God’s people, reaching across the world, changed a sparse and cold place of isolation into a place of praise and thanksgiving, a place of prayer, a place of family.
It must have been the same for Mary and Joseph, first time parents in a setting they weren’t prepared for. God sent shepherds. I believe they encouraged the young couple, giving them hope, rejoicing with them and turning their hearts to praise. Our shepherds did this for us, too. From the care package from our Sunday School class, to the shepherd who rushed in to pray aloud as I wept on the ground, to the doctor who helped take our son for help, to our young single missionary bringing books and food, to the voices of prayer and praise that came immediately and continually from afar … the tradition of Christmas shepherds is alive and well.
We were "mercifully" released on Christmas Eve, with days of healing ahead of us, healing physically, healing of memories, and healing of hopes. We thought of home far away, and we thought of God’s gracious gifts during our first Christmas in our new land. Beside the door we had a nativity set carved from the mountains around us. At the center was the baby Jesus, surrounded by young parents. Nearby we placed figures of the common people, the ones who turned from their own lives to respond immediately to God’s call to serve Him and comfort sojourners in the land. The shepherds.
Will we be called to comfort or to reach out to someone this Christmas? Will it be an unbeliever God brings across your path? Will it be an extended family member? Will it be a member of our church? Will it be a missionary whose need is mentioned in passing and burdens our heart? Will it be a foreigner, new to our land? May the willing, immediate response of the shepherds on the hill be an example for each of us during Christmas and each day as we have the chance to be a blessing … like the Shepherds of Christmas.