Shepherds and Spiritual Experiences

My church had its Bible study last night.  We’re going through Margaret Feinberg’s Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey.  I have two items:

1.  I enjoyed the DVD that we watched, in which Margaret talks about how shepherds were marginalized in ancient times, and yet God chose them to be present at Jesus’ birth.  According to Margaret, shepherds were marginalized for a variety of reasons: they smelled like sheep, they were socially awkward because their profession placed them away from human contact for long periods of time, they could not observe aspects of the Jewish law, etc.  Margaret also states that the youngest was usually stuck with the task of shepherding, since that job was looked down upon.

I’ve heard similar things in academia.  I remember Harvey Cox saying that shepherds could not keep the Sabbath, for the sheep had to be watched at all times (including Sabbaths).  How that worked in a society whose Torah mandated the death penalty for Sabbath-breaking, I do not know.  But what Harvey Cox said overlapped with Margaret’s point.  At the same time, I do not think that societies in the ancient world totally scoffed at shepherds, and that the Bible is an exception in that its depiction of shepherds is positive.  Other ancient Near Eastern nations also depicted their kings as shepherds.  However shepherds were regarded in the ancient world, they were deemed to be an excellent metaphor for discussing the relationship of leaders with their people.

Margaret said that the lesson of the nativity stories and the inclusion of shepherds in the Lukan one is that God is with us, even when we are alone and marginalized.  When we absorb that, Margaret said, we will then reach out to those who are marginalized and alone. I hope to arrive at that point.  I can easily find myself reaching out to those who can help me, or whose importance makes me feel important.  But if I find my self-esteem in God’s love for me, I can reach out to those who don’t make me feel important and who cannot help me.  This is not to say that I should wait for some “aha” moment before I can help others, though.

What Margaret said on the DVD reminded me of a movie that I watched a few nights ago: Joe Gould’s Secret.  In this movie, which is based on a true story, Ian Holm plays Joe Gould, a vagrant who believes that he’s collecting an oral history about the marginalized of society.  A friend of his, an artist (played by Susan Sarandon), thinks that it’s important for Joe Gould’s oral history to be published, for there are people in society who are lonely and who “have not been asked”, and she feels that their stories need to be heard.

2.  I don’t say a whole lot in Bible study.  I suppose that I can say some of the things that others in the group say, but I want to speak from the heart, and, while the things that others say may come from their hearts, these things wouldn’t come from mine.  Moreover, I do not know how exactly God relates to me, and so I don’t make dogmatic statements about that.  But I’m open to hearing what others have to say about how they believe God relates to them.  In my opinion, the reason this study is better than the last one we went through is that people in the group are sharing more about their faith and spiritual lives.

Here’s an example of where I have a hard time answering questions about my spiritual life: the pastor asked us if we believe that God disciplines us.  In my opinion, maybe he does.  But I don’t identify specific incidents as God disciplining me, for I do not know what is from God and what is simply from life.  In some cases, my own actions lead to consequences that can discipline me.  And trials, whether they are sent directly by God or not, can still make me a better person, or provide me with an opportunity to experience God.  The pastor talked about how he believed that God was with him after his first wife passed on.

Especially comforting to me were the stories that people in the group told about experiences with the supernatural.  The pastor said that, after his first wife passed on, his mother-in-law was having a difficult time dealing with her daughter’s death.  But the mother-in-law at night saw an apparition of her late daughter, who was telling her that she was all right, and that comforted her.  A lady in the group then told a story about someone who was on his deathbed, and he saw his late mother sit at his bedside (just like she did when she was alive) and offer him words of encouragement.  When I was growing up in Armstrongism and attending Adventist churches, I was taught to regard these things with suspicion, to see them as Satan or demons trying to deceive people.  Nowadays, I don’t see the issue that way.  I’m encouraged by stories about experiences with the supernatural as well as the hope that there is an afterlife: that we never truly say good-bye to our loved-ones.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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