Saturday, December 31, 2011


“The first noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds …”

The shepherds always seem to be on the edges of the nativity scene. Off to one side or another standing watch over the sheep or the donkey or maybe even the camel if the three kings aren’t up to the job. I’ve always had a soft spot for the shepherds, and I always try to edge them as close to the manger as I can in our little set. Those poor old shepherds know something. I’m sure of it.

For years when I was a kid, I misunderstood the use of the word “certain” the traditional carol “The First Noel.” I thought it was the verb. The carol wasn’t telling us which shepherds; it was telling us that the first noel happened to “certain” them—to make them sure of something. I love that. Even now, I hear it this way.

I love those shepherds in their certainty. As for me, most often I am not certain. I find myself waffling the instant I say something: “Well, I this is how I see it, but I can also see the other side.” In a postmodern age, it’s not unusual to do this, to be aware of options, to stand in the gray haze of infinite possibility rather than to stick your neck out and stand solid on one thing that makes you certain.

This isn’t all bad. I think it’s important to be aware of how power structures influence narratives, how we are necessarily limited when we speak by our own points of view. I also think it’s a very good thing that the church is growing in its acceptance of doubt, becoming more honest about the mysteries and paradoxes of the life of faith. We need to hear those things.

But we also need to hear that sometimes, on the edges of the action, are people who might have had an experience—as fleeting or inexplicable as it may be—when they were sure of something, when God’s love was real to them, when it all made sense. This coming year, those are the stories I want to hear—starting with the shepherds, and coming back to you. Because in those stories is life. I’m certain of it.

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