For a number of years, it was my job … and people actually came to hear me do it … to tell a story on the night before Christmas (actually December 24, after sundown is the beginning of Christmas … “and there was evening and there was morning, a first day … and there was evening and there was morning, a second day, …etc. — the day begins in the evening, not in the morning)
Well, I’ve been put out to pasture (they call it retirement) and no one comes around on December 24 to hear me tell a story. But I still had one bubbling up inside of me. So here it is. Perhaps, two nights later, there will be someone with insomnia, in need of a bedtime story:
A Pastoral Call to the Rabbi
© Monty Brown 12/26/2018
He stopped by my office and seemed upset. “I know I don’t have an appointment, but do you have a few minutes?”
“Sure,” I said. “Come on in. Sit down. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I’m not sure where to start. It seems like my whole world is falling apart. And I didn’t do anything wrong. I just don’t get it. Why me?”
Joe was not prone to hysterics. In fact, I’ve never seen him anywhere close to his wit’s end. He was always one of the stable people, who could be counted on to be a rock when others seemed to be unraveling. “Why don’t you start at the beginning … or wherever it seems like a good place to jump in. Sometimes the ‘beginning’ is hard to nail down.”
“You’ve got that right. OK, let me start with Mary.”
“Your fiancé?” I asked.
“Right. So, we were out a few nights ago, and she seemed a little strange.”
“How so,” I asked.
“Well, it was just little stuff to begin with. But it seemed, as the evening went on that she was nervous and kind of jumpy, and then she seemed irritable, and she didn’t want me to touch her in any way … she pulled her hand back when I even touched her.
“I decided that she just needed to get to it in her own way, and so I didn’t push her. I asked her some open-ended questions, trying to give her an opening to let me know what was wrong. We had not been having any problems, so I was at a loss.”
“Did she ever tell you,” I primed.
“Finally. It just came out in a rush, like someone pulled the cork out of a bottle that was tipped over, and everything just came pouring out. She got really quiet for a few seconds and I decided to just let the silence do its work. And then her next words were, ‘I think I’m pregnant.’”
I just sat there and let the silence do its work in this situation, because I didn’t really know which way to head with this. And then, after a few seconds, silence did its job and Joe went on.
“I was not sure that I had heard her right, and so I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘You heard me; I think I’m pregnant! But before you get the wrong idea, you need to know that I didn’t do anything wrong. I did not cheat on you, Joe. I swear. I didn’t.’
“I didn’t know how to respond to what she just said, because it seemed like an obvious contradiction: ‘I’m engaged … we didn’t have sex … I think I’m pregnant … I didn’t do anything wrong.’ So, I waited, and she didn’t say anything. Finally, I said, ‘Tell me what you mean.’
“I’ve got to confess that my brain was racing way ahead of what I was saying. And what I was feeling was running way past what my lips were saying. I felt stunned, and then angry, and then confused. While I was trying to sort out the contradiction of what she said, she began to explain to me that she had had a visit.”
“From another man?” I interjected.
“Well, kind of. She said his name was Gabriel.”
“Do you know this Gabriel guy?” I asked.
“No, she said he was an angel.”
I didn’t interject. I think I leaned back in my seat. I probably put my fingers together in a steeple fashion. I do that sometimes to demonstrate that I am thinking deeply. It actually means that I’m totally at a loss.
Joe didn’t say anything, so I said, “An angel?”
“Yea. An angel. She said he came to her while she was out pruning some grape vines. She told me that he came up and sort of startled her, because she didn’t hear him approach. And then she went through it all kind of fast – almost like she didn’t believe what she was telling me. She told me that he was an angel named Gabriel and that he stood in the presence of the Lord G-d Almighty, may His Name be praised. And that I was going to bear a son, and that this was going to be God’s son, so God was going to be the father, but I wouldn’t really have sex, but somehow get pregnant through some spiritual intercourse, but it would be a real human baby, and would be the son of God and would be holy and that everyone would call her blessed. And that she didn’t ask for this to happen, but it did, and what can you say when the Lord G-d, may His name be praised, sends His right-hand angel to give you the news. So, she told this Gabriel, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word.’”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Well, what would you do if your fiancé told you this?” Joe answered my question with a question.
I was hoping that this was a rhetorical question and not the one he really came to ask me, because I didn’t have any idea. So, I said, “Well, what did you do?”
“Yea. I didn’t have any idea. So, I just said, ‘Wow! That’s pretty heavy.’ And she said, ‘Don’t you know it! So, what do you think, Joe?’ And I didn’t know what to think, let alone what to say. One thing I have learned in my years of living: when it’s really important and it’s not easy, don’t be in a hurry. Let it sink in. Let it percolate through all the layers. Give it time to sort itself out before saying anything, let alone making an important decision that affects others as well as you. So, I told her, ‘Yes, Dear, it is very heavy. I need to ponder this for a while. Let me sleep on this, OK?’”
“Smart man,” I congratulated him. “And …?”
“And …” he picked up on my question as a conjunction, instead. “And I went home and thought a lot about it. I mean, she could be telling the truth. But it’d be a first. But, another voice inside me said, ‘But, of course, it’s a first; it’s the son of God! ‘ But, that first voice, the realistic one, told me that she just made a mistake and didn’t know how to tell me the real truth. And you and I both know that under our law, the punishment for that mistake is death by stoning. Well, I still loved her, and I certainly did not want to put her to that. So, round and round I went through most of the night until I finally fell asleep, not having decided what to do.”
“I’m not sure how to answer this one for you, Joe,” said I. “You know that …”
He interrupted my answer, thankfully, because I didn’t have an answer in head when I had started talking. I was hoping one would come to me. But, he did interrupt me, to tell me the rest of the story.
“No, wait,” began the interruption. “That’s not the end of it. After I fell asleep, I had this dream. At first, I thought it was just the voices inside my head continuing the debate while I was asleep. But, no, there was something more than that. This angel came to me in the dream and said that his name was Gabriel. And he confirmed every detail of what Mary had told me. And then he told me that I was to go ahead and take her for my wife, but not to consummate the marriage until after she had borne the child. And the angel told me to call the baby by the name of Joshua. And then …”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then I awoke.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “What do you make of that?”
“That is the question I came to ask you. What do you make of it?”
“Do you believe an angel really came to visit you in your dreams, Joe.”
“I think I believe it as much as Mary believes an angel visited her in the grape arbor. Do angels ever come in dreams, really?”
“Well ….“ I was pausing. My fingers were definitely steepled, as I tried to think. “Well yes, there are examples of this in scripture. And in the book of Job, Elihu is the only ones of Job’s friends whose counsel was not contested by anyone. He said that God speaks to us in one way and in two: in our dreams and in our sufferings.”
“Well, this qualifies on both counts.” Joe said. “Do you realize what my family, and her family, and everyone in the community is going to say, let alone think, about her and about me, if we go through with this.”
“Do you really believe it was an angel, Joe?” I repeated myself.
“Who? With her, or with me?”
“You can’t answer for her; you can only know your own experience,” I counseled.
“True that. I really can’t answer for her. But I would have had to have taken just her word for it, if I hadn’t had the angel visit me. Did it really happen? I don’t know, for sure. But it felt real. I’ve never had anything like that happen in all my years. Nothing! So what do you think?”
“I think,” I said here in my best attempt to be wise and hoping to not must be ducking the issue. “I think that just like you can’t know what happened with Mary, but only with yourself, then I can’t know what happened to either one of you. Now, if an angel comes to me tonight and lets me know; I’ll be sure to get in touch with you right away. But, in the meantime …” Here I paused, not to give emphasis to my counsel preceded by a pause, but because I was trying to say the thing that was being birthed in my mind, in the right way.
“I think that sometimes, in the right circumstances, certain people … and maybe all of us at some time in our lives … get into a situation where there comes a feeling upon us, like a dawning of the morning sun in our recognition, that we are involved in something much bigger than us. That we are being caught up into a story that is not about us and is certainly bigger than us, but in which we have a role to play. Do we have a choice as to whether or not to do that which is required by the larger story? The Lord G-d, may His name be praised, is always in charge, but I believe He always allows us to exit out of taking on this role in His story. But, if we allow Him to be the author, and trust in Him to use us to His glory, then we can’t go wrong. And that means, regardless of what anyone else says.
“So what I’m saying is this: if you have that sense down deep in the recesses of your very being that you, and Mary, have been caught up in this larger story that is not about you, but in which you have been nominated to have a starring, or at least best supporting actor or actress, role, then you have to decide if you will trust that.”
Joe just looked at me. Then he said, “Yea. I think that’s it. That’s how it felt. Thanks, Rabbi. That helps.”
And then he left.
I never saw Joseph again. He died several years later, I’m told. I did get a letter from him about a few years after that. It came in a caravan of some traveling merchants from Egypt. It was just a short note. It read like this:
“I just wanted to thank you for that conversation we had. You are indeed a wise man. I took your advice and stayed with Mary. And she had that baby boy that was promised. She never wavered in her story of the baby’s fatherhood. And it seemed to help both of us when I told her about the angel coming in the dream to me. We had to both just go on the basis of our feeling that it was real; that it was part of something much bigger than her or me. But, you know, even with all that, we never were completely sure.
“The night the baby was born, we had gotten caught up in all that census taking that the Emperor had commanded. We were in Bethlehem when the baby was born. Long story short: the night of the birth, a bunch of shepherds came in from the hillside (it was lambing season, so they were not in the fold.) And, somehow, they knew how to find us, and (I wish I could see your face when you read this) they told us that angels came to them and confirmed the whole story that Mary and I both believed angels had told us.
“So, here I am absolutely convinced, on the basis of what some hitherto unknown shepherds told us happened to them, outside of Mary’s and my personal experience. Isn’t that wild? We each have an angel visit us, but what really convinced us was the word of complete strangers?
“Guess what really did it was the confirmation from three entirely independent sources that this definitely was all part of a bigger story, and we were just players in it. Mary and I returned the favor and told the shepherds of our personal angel visit stories to confirm their own experience. You should have seen the look on their faces when we told them!
“I hope that I can see you again. We had to go to Egypt with the baby. But that’s a wholly different story … or, no, maybe it’s not wholly different at all. Anyway …. Thanks for listening. May the blessing of the Lord G-d, may His name be ever praised, follow you every step of your own journey. I think you were part of that bigger story, too. What do you think?
“Joseph, the carpenter.”
Was I? Was I part of their story? Of THE story, as Joseph explained it. I don’t know if I had much of a role in that part of the story. I have had a sense, many years later, when I heard stories of this Jesus (the Greek translation of Joshua) that they were all confirmation of a larger story for sure. A story in which all of us might at one time, or another, might feel like we are a part of.
And, Joe was right, it is often only when we pay attention to other people’s stories that we get the confirmation of that much larger story. A story that really is meant for all of us. And a story that includes all of us.
It makes me feel like the details of my own little life might really be important, after all, particularly when fit into the stories of other lives like pieces of a puzzle, in which the big picture is one that only the Lord G-d, may His name be praised, can see. But a story, when we allow, we can actually feel is gathering us in.