Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Dec 22, 2019
You thought Mary had been side-lined by the Protestants. Joseph has been side-lined by everyone. He plays such an insignificant role in the Christmas story. He then flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt and eventually returns to his home town. He had a brief adventure in Jerusalem with his wayward son who went missing for a few days. After these stories, we hear nothing more about Joseph in the New Testament. There is some speculation that Joseph joined other resistors to the Roman oppressors and was killed along with hundreds of other devout Jews in a Roman massacre. We don’t know much about Joseph, but there are some interesting references in Matthew that provide some clues and possibilities. (put on kipah)
It was my Dad who taught me how to listen to my dreams. He said, “Son, we have a noble heritage of visionaries and dream interpreters. I’ve put together a family tree and, with a little bit of creativity that dips over to the women’s side and involves some interesting relationships, I’ve traced our line all the way back to Abraham.”
Dad was always a bit of a dreamer. The family tree that he made up was bizarre, to say the least, and it certainly wouldn’t have held up in a court of law. But it was interesting to think of Abraham, the father of our nation, as part of my own lineage.
Dad then told me about why he called me Joseph. “Joe, you know that Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of Joseph. That’s why I named you Joseph. Jacob was the father of the tribes of Israel and I have feeling that I, Jacob the second you might say, will be the father of a new kind of nation. You, my son, will help to usher this in. Just like your forebearer, Joseph the dreamer, you will need to pay close attention to your dreams. Our deepest fears, hopes and yearnings come alive in our dreams, when we are completely open to wherever God’s Spirit might take us. During the day, we’re encumbered by our own fenced-in, logically-based consciousness and that tends to limit God’s imagination. So, Joe, pay attention to your dreams, no matter how wild or bizarre they might seem, for there, you will hear God’s voice.”
“Yeah, Dad, whatever.” Dad wasn’t too pleased with my dismissal of his dreaming ways. But I never forgot his words. They came rushing back, full force, when I had a nightmare of my own. I guess I should call it a “daymare” because I was fully conscious when Mary told me her “tidings of great joy”.
Everything had gone so well up until then. Our families had agreed upon our marriage and I was looking forward to getting to know Mary a bit better. She was a bit precocious—very bright and passionate when it came to issues of justice. She had a deep faith. That was what attracted me more than anything else. My faith was like the blood running through my veins. From my faith flowed life itself. Sh’ma Yisaeil, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. I have bound this prayer—the Shema—to my forehead and forearm. They are the last words I say every night. God is good.
But then, my world turned upside down. Then, my prayers mattered more than anything else. I begged God to explain what was going on. What should I do? With good conscience, I could not proceed with the wedding. Oh, how I agonized over what to do. My angst exhausted me into sleep, when I dreamt the most bizarre dream. It was as if my sub-conscience tried to smooth everything out and say, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be ok.” I awoke to that pre-awakening sense of peace before reality flooded back in. And then, I was reminded of what my Dad told me, “Joe, pay attention to your dreams, no matter how wild or bizarre they might seem, for there, you will hear God’s voice.”
I made speed to Mary’s house, and asked, with humbled heart, if I might speak alone with her. She finally emerged, eyes dark with fear, for I had cut her deeply the previous day with unkind accusations. I knelt before her and offered the words that had been offered by dream to me: “Do not be afraid. Mary, your son, quickened by the Holy Spirit, is my son. His name will be Jesus, for he will save our people. And they will call him Emmanuel, for God is indeed with us. Will you have me as your husband?”
I move now from my story to yours. You strive every year for a picture-perfect Christmas, but life and death keep getting in the way. You may be grieving over your recent loss. You may be worrying over a loved one in the hospital. You may be in pain as you, or those who are close to you, struggle with addictions. You may be afraid of family conflicts emerging yet again.
I have learned that God is not found in a tidied, tinsel-town storybook. God is found in the very life and death that keep getting in the way. God is in the tears and the fear. God is in the lonely heart. God is in the struggle and the questions. God is in the hurt and the pain.
The question, for me, is how to see God, when God is not where you would expect God to be. I have two stories from your time that relate to mine. A few years ago, a Toronto sculptor created an image of a hooded man asleep on a city bench. His bare feet stuck out from under the ragged blanket, revealing stigmata. My dear son. But some of your people couldn’t bear the thought of my son suffering, poor and homeless and so you protested. Christ should not be portrayed as one of them! But my son was one of them. He was poor and homeless. He was cast out. And with those who were considered the dregs of society in my day, he was Emmanuel—God with them.
The second story takes us to streets of a different kind. Your minister’s roommate at seminary later began a midnight ministry with women who worked the streets in Hawaii. One year, Christmas Eve brought unusually cold weather and this woman started a warming fire in a garbage can. As the street workers gathered around for warmth, she upended another garbage can, placed a cloth over it and brought out her communion elements. “Joy to the world,” she whispered, offering the body of my son. “The Lord is come. Emmanuel—God is with you.”
The wonder of Christmas is not in the absence of difficulty or moral dilemmas. It is found in the very heart of them. And your part may not be to fix it and put it into proper order. That may not be possible. Instead, look for God in the improper. Look for God in the upset and in the failure. Look for God the places that most confuse. That’s where I found God.
And most of all, look for God in your dreams, for there you are set free to welcome holy mystery, holy mischief, holy… What you find with your dreamer’s eyes might just lead you in an unexpected, Spirit-led direction.