LIMA — Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A carpenter and a virgin walk into a stable. The wife is very, very pregnant and she gives birth before the night is out. As the night passes, this couple and their baby boy are joined by a motley crowd of shepherds from the nearby hills, while overhead a host of angels sing and bear tidings of comfort and joy. It is, all in all, quite a scene.
But wait, I can tell that you’ve heard this one before. Well, who — in the Western World, at least — hasn’t?
If you are clergy, you have not only heard this story virtually every December of your life, you have retold it yourself every December since you first stood in front of an expectant congregation. It’s a story you never get tired of hearing, yes. But really, after you’ve preached the Nativity five or 10 or 20 times, what more can you say?
“I think that early on, probably for the first 10 years [of my ministry], I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to find different ways to tell the story, to get more and more and more creative and keep raising the bar,” said the Rev. Rob White, senior pastor of Lima’s First Baptist Church.
After 20 years in pastoral ministry, however, White said he has come to realize when you have a story this good to tell, you don’t really have to add anything to it.
“The longer I go,” he said, “the more I realize that the power is not in my ability to tell the story. It’s a real simple story. The power is the story. If you just tell the story, that’s what allows the Holy Spirit to touch people.”
So on Christmas Eve, the congregation at First Baptist will hear the story of the Nativity, as it does every year. It will be a straightforward account, White said. But he also plans to add some contemporary context by inviting members of the congregation to tell their own stories during the service.
“This year,” he said, “I’ve been using the advent season to talk about gifts that we have from the Holy Spirit that we may not be using. We’ve been talking about the gift of peace, the gift of compassion, the gift of conviction. On Christmas Eve I’m going to have people from the church get up and briefly talk about their experience using [these gifts] this year. And I’ll get up at the end and just tell the story of Jesus giving us hope and giving us the fullness of life and what that means, and offering people the opportunity to use that gift in their lives right now. It’s not a new story. The newness comes from trying to tie different people’s personal experiences into that.”
Rev. Duane Kemerley, pastor of Pandora and Riley Creek United Methodist churches, has spent 36 years in the ministry. Of course, he told me, the Scripture text and the story are the same every year. But that doesn’t mean the story can’t be told from a new viewpoint, with different aspects of the narrative emphasized to bring a new perspective to the listener.
“There’s always something to say. It’s like taking anything in your hand and turning it a little bit and looking at it from a different angle, with light from a different direction.”
For Kemerley,this often means “peeling away the folklore” and keeping his congregation focused on what is actually written in the Scriptures.
“In part,” he noted, “[it means] bringing people up on the specifics of what really happened and where it really happened and how it really happened. In the culture we have, layers and layers and layers of religious folklore that has nothing to do with Scripture or reality. As a pastor, it’s not my job to perpetuate the folklore.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Christmas story must be told dispassionately. When examined in historical context, with an emphasis on the meaning of this one birth for the people involved, the story of Christmas becomes an intensely human saga.
“You can look at the shepherds,” said Kemerley. “What was it like to be a shepherd in that time and to get a message to go see something and to wonder what all this could be about. You put it in a historical context of the people who were oppressed by a foreign government, and the poor people were actually oppressed by their own religious leaders. So what kind of hope does that bring to shepherds? What kind of hope does that bring to a poor couple like Mary and Joseph?”
What kind of hope did that bring? What kind of hope does it bring today?
That hope, White said, is not given by the man or woman who stands before the congregation this Christmas season.
“I’m not going to touch people’s lives with this,” he said. “It’s not me. I don’t have the power to do that. It’s only by the power of God that this story gets out and changes people’s lives.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at email@example.com.