On Being Forged, Shaped, and Fostered – Br. James Koester

We have heard it before. In fact, some of us have heard the Christmas story so often, that like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas,[1] large swaths of it can be recited from memory. Perhaps we can’t recite it word for word in the idiom of the King James Bible, but we know the story cold. If our inner Linus has not memorized it, we can certainly tell the story in our own words, and little would be lost. In fact, in telling the Christmas story in our own words, some parts it might even be embellished, the details highlighted, the emphasis personalized.

We all tell stories. We tell stories to convey information, and many stories are just that, information. We tell stories to amuse, and many stories are just that, amusing. However, we tell stories not just to convey information, or to amuse. We tell stories because stories have power. The most powerful ones are told over, and over again. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that we have in common. It is those stories, the ones in common, that are the most powerful. It is those stories, the powerful ones, the ones we share, that forge our common identity. They shape our corporate imagination. They foster our sense of community and belonging. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that change us, and in turn, are changed by us.

There is something to stories then, especially the powerful ones, that are transformative. These stories that change us, may not be about us, but we nevertheless find ourselves in them, or rather we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in them.

That’s what we are doing tonight. We are finding ourselves by telling a story. Indeed, we are telling many stories. That story, or those stories, are both, deeply personal, and amazingly universal for they have forged, shaped, and fostered us as individuals, even if we think they haven’t. It does not matter if you are a professed Christian, or a casual attender this evening, your life has been shaped by this story, even if you claim not to believe it. That same story is also amazingly universal. It has forged nations, shaped laws, and fostered education and the arts. In either case, a deeply personal story, or an amazingly universal one, the Christmas story is a story of discovery because through it, we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in it.

And it all begins with a few simple words that Linus knew by heart: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.[2]

On the one hand this is simply a piece of information that Luke conveys to us. He marks the beginning of the story, by dating it to a remembered event. But there is much, much more to those few words than simply dating an event, for in that one verse, we begin to find ourselves, and find ourselves in the story.

While Luke conveys information, he also draws us into the story. He does that by reminding us that decisions made hundreds of miles away by one man, can upend the lives of countless people far away. We know what that is like. We see it every day. Decisions made today in Moscow are upending the lives of millions, if not billions of people, not only in Ukraine, and throughout Europe, but around the globe. In a story about a dislocated couple two thousand years ago, we find ourselves. In their feeling of powerlessness, we know our own powerlessness.

Having just walked 135 miles in Wales over 5 weeks, with plenty of rest days and breaks, I cannot imagine Mary’s agony, as she and Joseph traveled 90 miles in the last days of her pregnancy. I averaged about 2.5 miles an hour, walking about 10 miles each day. No doubt Mary and Joseph were slower, and their journey would have taken well over a week, with every bump and jostle hurting more than the last. As one version puts it: the journey took several long days and cold nights as they travelled over high hills and through the dry desert. When they arrived, tired and weary, they entered the crowded village.[3]

Perhaps we have never made a journey such as Mary and Joseph did, but we all know what it is like to be powerless in the face of forces and circumstances far, and not so far away, think the war in Ukraine, think COVID. We know what it is to be powerless.

If we see in the Christmas story an experience of powerlessness, another’s as well as ours, so too is it a story of awe.

The job of the shepherd was hard, dirty, exhausting, and mostly boring, especially at night when all that was wanted was sleep. Sleep however was not to be had, because a large part of the job was to keep the sheep safe, especially at night, when any number of nocturnal animals were out looking for an easy meal. It was in the middle of one of those long, dark, exhausting, sleepless nights that something happened. [Suddenly] a great light from above was shining all around them. A spirit-messenger from Creator appeared to them. They shook with fear and trembled….[4]

Angels, or spirit-messengers as First Nations version of the New Testament calls them, may or may not be your thing, but awe certainly is. Human beings are hard-wired for awe. The moment our first ancestors looked into the night sky, we have been captivated by awe, recognizing the hand of something, or someone, much bigger than ourselves. As we lose ourselves in the world of awe, we struggle to name its source. Some of us call it God.

Elizabeth Stout, the New England novelist puts it this way in her novel Olive, Again. In one scene Suzanne is having a conversation with Bernie where she confides to him, when I was a kid…I would take these walks and I would get this feeling, this very deep sensation, and I understood…that it had something to do with God. But I haven’t had it for years, and so I wonder: Did I make it up? But I know I didn’t.[5]

Here Suzanne tentatively tells us she has entered the world of awe, this very deep sensation, that she names God. The heavens may not have been torn apart by spirit-messengers, but she knows she has not made it up, and has had an experience of a world far larger than herself, the world of God.

On that hillside near Bethlehem those shepherds had a similar experience, as they gazed into the heavens in awe and knew that it had something to do with God, and they hadn’t made it up.

When we find ourselves in moments of awe, we find ourselves with those shepherds on that hillside. We may not be able to say that is had something to do with God, but we know we did not make it up.

And Mary knew that too. She knew she did not make it up, and so she treasured all that had happened, and she pondered them in her heart.[6]

Mary did not have it all figured out. She did not know what it all meant, but she knew she had not made it up, and that somehow it had to do with God. And it is there we find ourselves once again in this story.

As Mary pondered who this tiny baby lying in rough feeding trough was, she tried to make sense of her life in light of everything that happened: that torturous journey with Joseph, the birth of her son in a sheep cave, the angels, and shepherds, and above all who this tiny baby was and was to be.

You may not identify yourself as a professed Christian, but I assure you, even those of us who do, are like Mary, trying to make sense of our lives in light of everything that has happened. We are especially trying to make sense of who this tiny baby was and is, for us.

If you find yourself pondering, if even for only a moment, who this Jesus is, and what he might mean for your life, then you are like Mary, and as Mary, you have found yourself in the story, pondering these things in your heart.

Stories have power, and some stories have the power to shape our identity, forge our imagination, and foster our sense of belonging. When those stories are told, we are not a passive audience, listening for information or amusement. We are co-creators in an ongoing story, as it changes us, and we change the story.

The stories we tell at Christmas are such stories, for they touch us where we feel most powerless. They usher us into a world of awe. They force us to ponder their meaning for our lives. And most importantly, if we let them, if we let them, they will invite us to give away our heart.

when I was a kid…I would take these walks and I would get this feeling, this very deep sensation, and I understood…that it had something to do with God. But I haven’t had it for years, and so I wonder: Did I make it up? But I know I didn’t.

And in that moment, Suzanne gave away, if ever so tentatively, a tiny portion of her heart.  My prayer for you is that when you leave this chapel, and go out into the night, you will experience a very deep sensation, and know that it has something to do with God. Knowing that, you will kneel in silence, and give to God in the person of this tiny infant, a tiny portion of your heart. And with that you will discover yourself being forged, shaped, and fostered by the power of this story.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

[1] A Charlie Brown Christmas was first broadcast in 1965. In one scene Linus recites the Lucan Christmas story from memory.

[2] Luke 1: 1

[3] First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 2021, page 105

[4] Luke 2: 9, First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 2021, page 105

[5] As quoted in Church Times, Elizabeth Stout’s Merciful Judgement, 16 December 2022

[6] Luke 2: 19

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  1. Pat Baker on December 21, 2023 at 18:07

    Beautifully done, Br. James. One of the things this wonderful piece did for me, is lay to rest, once and for all, the question of Biblical inerrancy.
    Question: Is the Bible literally true? Answer: That isn’t even the question – the importance of literal inerrancy pales in comparison to the real truth of our faith stories.
    Thank you

  2. Marilyn Bergen on December 21, 2023 at 12:36

    Br James, your words have touched that part within me that is awe and that I call God. Thank you for the reminder that we have all been touched by God. I am most grateful.
    Marilyn Bergen

  3. Kip Travis on December 21, 2023 at 12:00

    Br. James, Great work, making an “old” story so relevant and fresh here in this moment. I like spirit-messengers as a variation of angels. Somehow, for me, I think I may have been in contact with spirit-messengers , less likely with angels. Merry Christmas to you and all the brothers. Thank you Emmanuel

  4. Suzanne Haraburd on December 21, 2023 at 09:40

    Thank you for re-awakening my awe today. I needed to read this.

  5. Suzie Shade on December 21, 2023 at 08:22

    Wonderful! Beautifully written.

  6. Joan Putney on December 21, 2023 at 07:42

    Beautiful, Br James! You have told this story, which I have heard since childhood (a while ago), in the perfect way. Thank you.

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