Sunday, December 04, 2011

Your Role in the Nativity: Shepherd, King - or Innkeeper?

Assume for a moment that you have been transported back two millenia and find yourself in Bethlehem (or Nazareth, depending on which of the scholars you take as more reliable) the night of Christ's birth. Now that you are there, let's say that you have the opportunity to be any of the secondary characters involved in the event (aside from Mary, Joseph or the child).

Who would you be?

Instinctively, I think most people would want to assume the role of one of the shepherds or visitors from the East who have come to praise the child and bring gifts. After all, don't we always want to be someone cast in the best possible light, one who adds something rather than one who impedes, one who assists rather than one who ignores?

But in reality, deep down, aren't many of us - for good or bad, by choice or by impulse - more like the innkeeper? Someone who takes the easy way out and gives less than they could, if anything at all, to help someone in need? Isn't it really someone else's problem? And aren't the distractions in our own lives enough to worry about without having to help another through his or her own difficulties?

Somewhere I heard or read (alas, I can't recall) that the innkeeper was a decent person who legitimately had nothing and did all he could to help - and perhaps felt guilt that he couldn't do more. If true, that would be wonderful - but somehow, no matter how many times I read and hear the Nativity story, the more the pessimistic view of the presumed "host" is the one that tends to win out.

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the cynicism I still tend to feel when approached by people on the street - and how I should work harder to recognize the face of Christ in everyone. Depending on how you look at it, that same cynicism could have been found in the innkeeper - someone who looked with a very wary eye upon the pregnant teenage girl and the disheveled, tired man leading her on a donkey through the darkened streets of the town.

"May we have a room?" - "Do you have a dollar so that I can get something to eat?" In both instances, his answer - and, invariably, mine - are "I have nothing."

In his collection of essays entitled Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes of the innkeeper this way:

"'Do you know what it is like to run an inn - to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million tress,' said the Innkeeper, 'and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

"'Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet - just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window - just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle ofthem all. The whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere - only the wind, the wind...'"

Examine the way you help others - not through an intermediary organization, or by sending a check to nameless, faceless person, but when confronted face to face by someone in need. Will you be a shepherd and do what you can by simply offering praises for the person for who they are? Will you be as the visitors from the East, who brought gifts of enormous value and gave them freely? Or will you be like the innkeeper, who says "I have nothing here; go over there?"

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