A New Christmas Story

Imagine who might have been at Bethlehem the night Jesus was born – people beyond the stories in Matthew and Luke. Each story re-imagines the Christmas story from the perspective of their own lives. You can find all four stories here. (By Jimmy Reader  © 2021)


            I remember. I’ve never felt so alive, as I walk out of that cave, out of the darkness. Now I can see his face. I see a tear dampening his cheek. And I remember. It seems so long ago now.

            I was ten years old, the son of an innkeeper in Bethlehem. My mother was distantly related to Joseph, and a cousin had brought them there that night to the inn. There was no room, but Momma could not turn them away. She sent me to the stable to prepare a place for the birth, and I put new straw in a sheep’s crib and prepared a warm place for Mary. Then I sat there – in the corner of another cave, a place for the animals to stay warm.

            My mother was attending the birth of a boy. I heard Joseph call his name, “Jesus.” Joseph sat in front of me; but he was unaware of me. I sat in the shadows, looking out toward the only light in the cave.

            I could tell how tired Joseph was. He seemed a bit afraid, perhaps for Mary and the baby. Mary was strong. I could tell that even in the moment of the birth. She was so young, so vibrant. Not pretty really, not like other women who the men watched. But she was handsome and striking, someone you would always remember.

            She didn’t cry out as so many women do when giving birth. And when the baby was born, she immediately held him. I saw her face – so beautiful in the way she looked at him, with so much joy and love. Yet it was as if she knew something sad about him. Strange. How could she know what would happen? And why would she be sad?

            My mother soon left to do other things. We had a full house that night, with all the visitors in town for the Roman census. That was why Joseph and Mary had come on this journey just at this time. When my mother was gone, Joseph went over and touched the baby boy and kissed Mary on her forehead and sat down beside them. He was so tired. He quickly went to sleep, now that he knew they were both safe.

            I heard Mary call the baby’s name now. Jesus. So soft, so joyful, yet with that tinge of sadness. And she kissed him so tenderly. Pulled the cloths tightly around him, and shivered. I ran into the house to get a blanket for Mary and brought it and put it on her shoulders. I think that was the first time she noticed me. And the smile she gave me warmed me deep into my soul.

            I could tell she was tired, too. But the baby seemed wide awake, as if he was watching everything, wanting to see it all. I asked her if I could hold Jesus so she could sleep, and she gave him to me. He was warm, as if some light within him was giving off heat. As I looked into his eyes, it seemed that he was old, ancient really, and full of wisdom and knowledge. He looked into my eyes and knew who I was. This newborn infant knew me. How could that be? He smiled. I know he did. He even laughed. No. Babies don’t do that, but he did.

            I talked to him. I told him “my brother died last year when he was tending sheep who were attacked by wolves. My mother still cries at night because she misses him so much. I have a younger sister, Martha, and my mother is having another child soon. I think they’re going to call her Mary, if she’s a girl. Martha is already old enough to help around the house. She’s good at that and seems to enjoy it.

            “My father works hard and doesn’t say much. I know he loves me, but it’s hard for him to show it. And he gets angry easily. He wasn’t that way so much until after my brother died. I never see him cry, but I hear him yell and curse when he’s angry. And Momma is sad most of the time. I haven’t seen her happy in a very long time – not until she saw you, Jesus.

“I wish I could do something for you, give something to you. But we don’t have anything. In another year I’ll probably be out taking care of the sheep on the hillsides. But I want more than that. I have a cousin in Bethany, near Jerusalem, who is a businessman. Some day maybe I can live with him and learn the business. And maybe you could come and visit me. — What’s that? Why am I crying? A tear has fallen on you, dampening my cheek. So strange.

“I guess all I can give you right now is this –  to talk to you like this and hold you and be with you. And laugh with you. You are laughing, aren’t you? And cry with you, but why would I do that? Maybe some day you’ll become a teacher, and I can come listen to you. Maybe you can come to my home and we can talk together. Some day maybe you’ll cry for me. My name is Lazarus. But you’ll probably never know me.”

I remember it all now. It was so long ago, yet it seems like yesterday. (No, yesterday was something else. What happened yesterday? )  But I remember that long ago night – before the dawn broke, shepherds came in from the fields with stories of angels and their songs of peace and of glory to God and of a message about Christ the King. I could not believe it. The Messiah. As a Jewish boy of 10 years, I knew all the stories of the Messiah to come. That would explain so much, but it seemed too good to be true. I dared not believe it.

But there were other things. I heard about wise men coming later on. Then the family disappeared shortly before that terrible time when Herod had the baby boys killed. Then I heard that the family had gone home to Nazareth. And the cousin who brought them to our home that night later told us stories that had circulated in the family about a strange birth to other cousins too old to have a child. But they had a son, named John, who disappeared from home as a teenager and was reportedly living in the desert.

Well, of course, that was John, the one who baptized Jesus. These past three years have been a wonderful time. I have gone out to hear Jesus as often as possible. It has been good to have him in our home at times. I remember Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him with the rest of us, and Martha acted like she was so busy. She loved Jesus and couldn’t admit it. I knew, we all knew. I think she was the last to know.

So many memories. What is that I remember now? What is it? Yesterday? A day or two before? What? The pain. The weakness. The darkness. Now I remember. I was dying, waiting for Jesus to come. And he has come. He is here, outside the cave, calling my name, “Lazarus!” As I once spoke his name as a newborn, now he speaks my name. Now I see him. I see the tear on his cheek, just like mine that night in the cave in Bethlehem. I wondered then why I would cry as I held him.

Now I know. Now Jesus is crying for me. I was dead. I am alive again! Now he holds me. Again he looks into my eyes and he knows me. He was old, ancient, and full of wisdom and knowledge, for he was and is the Christ. And he is my friend. He loves me.

I will no longer sit in the shadows, as I once did, looking out

at others. I will stand in the light of the life Jesus has given me. And I will tell my story. I will tell all that I remember – the stories of that first night and of all the nights he stayed with us in our home and of this night as well. It is growing dark now, as the day gives way to night. But that night in Bethlehem was filled with love and this night will be too. And we will talk again, as we once did. Only tonight, Jesus will speak, and I will listen. And laugh. And cry. And remember!

In this world

Jesus said the kingdom was not of this world, and the Church decided he meant it was other-worldly, that salvation was about a life beyond this world.

Jesus’ words, however, focused on this world. The kingdom of God (by whatever name we call it) has its origin in God, not in this world, but it is very much about life in this world. Jesus taught us how to live – to be fully alive – in this world.

Biblical words and images of “salvation” are about this world – freedom, healing, justice, compassion, and life. Wherever we experience these things, we experience salvation. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth.” How do we live here and now, in this place, in this day? That is the question of salvation.

No Longer Christian?

After 50 years in pastoral ministry (now retired), I find myself wondering where I belong. I hear daily stories of what “evangelicals” say and do, and I want nothing to do with most of it. I think Jesus wants nothing to do with it.

I’m reading a book by Sarah Augustine, called “The Land Is Not Empty,” about how Europeans, often under the authority of the Christian Church, stole this land from indigenous people and sought to destroy them. The stories the people tell to this day bring me to my knees in lament and repentance for what people who look like me have done.

I continue to listen to stories and learn how white people, thinking Christian scriptures authorized it, enslaved and lynched and denied the humanity of Black people. And in the last few years, I have seen how people continue to do it.

The Church as an institution, a tradition, a religion, a culture, a power in this world has been responsible for so much evil. Confession, lament, repentance must come if there is hope for its future. Christians – evangelicals – traditional Catholics – not all, but so many – refuse to acknowledge what “we” have done.

I follow Jesus. I choose to love God and others. But do I want to be “a Christian”? Some days, I don’t know.

This world IS my home

Through the centuries, the Christian Church taught people to focus on a life to come after this “earthly” life ends. In many circles, about the only thing that mattered was whether people would go to heaven when they die. Everything else was not important.

Jesus, however, taught us how to live in this world. The good news was that the kingdom of God had come here – was now a present reality in our midst. Whenever Jesus used language about what happens beyond this world, he was making a point about how to live here and now in the kingdom of God.

From beginning to end, Jewish and Christian scriptures reveals a good creation and God’s desire for a world of peace and freedom, justice and health, and love for God and one another. God works in and through us to live so that world may become a reality.

Creating Community

My heart’s desire is for community which is committed to love, freedom, healing, justice, and life. As a Christian, I believe these five aspects of community are the same as “salvation” in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I also believe that all faith traditions honor these essential realities of community – indeed that people who claim no faith tradition honor these reali

My hope is that people will learn together from each other, encourage one another, and empower each other to a life in all its fullness.

Shalom and Jesus

The community of God is open to people of all faiths and no faith. Use the language of your tradition as you talk about things. As a Christian, I “see” life from a perspective rooted in this faith, and I understand this faith at its best when it comes from Jesus’ life and words.

Shalom is much more than peace. It is being fully alive and “whole.” When Jesus speaks of “salvation” and “the kingdom,” he includes freedom, healing, justice, and love in a life that is now. What I write fcomes out of that understanding.

Compassion and Homosexuality

In 2004 I wrote Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church. I might edit the language some. For instance, I wouldn’t today use what now feels like an outdated and inappropriate term such as “homosexuality.” On pp. 82-87, you will find the following section I wrote:

God’s call to compassion moves me in directions I would not have gone in the past. As a leader in the “older son” community, I confidently taught an interpretation of the scriptures which said that sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender was sinful and unacceptable. I voted for years against every effort to say otherwise. After my “new birth” experience, as I began to grow in the ways of compassion, as I began to listen to the stories of people who are gay and lesbian, the Spirit moved my heart and mind to walk a different path on this journey.

I heard people say consistently that just as I had known from childhood that I was attracted to persons of the opposite gender, they had known they were attracted to persons of the same gender. They had the same desires and feelings I had, but in a different way. My memories of being attracted to a girl go all the way back to first grade, to a little girl who rode the same school bus. In the third grade, I had my first real “love” who I walked with after school. I remember girlfriends in sixth grade, in ninth grade, and on through high school and into college. I even remember some of their names. Other people saw all those relationships as cute when I was younger and acceptable as I grew older.

What must it be like for people whose attraction from those early years is for someone of the same gender if almost no one thinks it’s cute or acceptable? Many of them had learned, as I had, from church and culture that same-gender sexual intimacy (commonly called homosexuality) is sinful. They struggled against their feelings and desires. They felt them as normal for them but were constantly told they were abnormal, even sinful. Many tried to change who they were. They dated and even married in heterosexual relationships and found themselves in despair, for they knew it felt wrong for them.

I wish Jesus had said something about homosexuality, but he did not. In all the Bible, there are only a handful of references. I returned to the scriptures and read books on all sides of the question of whether such relationships are right or wrong. And I have come to an understanding of scripture that God desires love and faithfulness to the other person in a relationship, but that the Bible is silent on whether people of faith can live in a lifelong relationship with a person of the same gender.

The creation stories, in Genesis 1-2, focus on the creation of a man and a woman, made in God’s image and given responsibility for the rest of creation. The necessity of two people being able to “increase in number and fill the earth” requires them to be male and female. Jesus understood this story [see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12] to mean that God intended two people to continue in a faithful relationship throughout their life together. Jesus was responding to a question, asked out of the hardness of some men’s hearts, about whether men should be allowed to divorce their wives for just any reason. These texts do not speak about homosexuality but about the importance of a mutual and faithful commitment to the other person, just as God is faithful to us.

The story of Sodom [Genesis 19] is often used to condemn homosexuality because the men of the city wanted to have sex with these two angels who looked like men. But sexual orientation is not the issue. Rather the story at that point is about violence and rape, perhaps even about the ancient tradition of hospitality. Then and now, heterosexual men commonly use homosexual rape as a tool for achieving power and dominance over strangers, in war and in prison, for instance. Lot even offered his daughters to the men, believing he could appease their violent lust for power, but the angels prevented that. There is nothing in the story remotely similar to committed gay and lesbian relationships.

Ezekiel 16:49 offers another view that the sin of Sodom was that the people were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned and they did not help the poor and needy. Those are sins prevalent in a heterosexual society and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Prohibitions against homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20 are surrounded by prohibitions against a number of things which are usually accepted today, such as creating hybrid plants, wearing clothing with multiple fabrics, eating steaks cooked “rare,” trimming our hair and beards, and getting tattoos. This “holiness code,” as it is commonly called, also permits some things which are normally condemned today, such as polygamy and slavery. If the scriptures allow us to understand any of these laws to be no longer applicable – such as polygamy and slavery laws – are we not free to reconsider all of them in the same way?

Romans 1:26-27 is the only text to include women in the discussion of same sex relations. The question for us is whether what Paul describes is in any way the same thing as a committed, monogamous relationship between two persons of the same sex. What Paul talks about is how people have refused to glorify God, their Creator, and to be grateful to God, and to worship God. Rather they turned to idols, to “gods” of their own making. In that day people commonly visited temples dedicated to the worship of various gods, and that “worship” often included sexual relations with temple prostitutes, both men and women. In the context of this chapter, many people agree that the sexual relations described here were in the context of idolatrous worship and are not descriptive of committed same-gender relationships.

In the New Testament [1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10], two Greek words at the heart of the current debate probably refer to men who regularly engaged in sex with young boys for their own pleasure. That is pedophilia or pederasty, not just homosexuality, certainly not what gay and lesbian Christians experience. Both verses are in the context of describing how some people continue to abuse other people, to refuse to worship God, to be unfaithful to people and to God, to treat other people and themselves without respect or honor. Gay and lesbian Christians would as quickly condemn such behavior as anyone else.

Given this too brief discussion of these scripture texts, is a person’s sexual orientation even a matter of concern to us in the church? Our concern is to be people who worship God, who are faithful to God and to people, who do not abuse but rather respect and honor other people and themselves. Our concern is to encourage faithful, committed relationships of love and grace and faith. If gay and lesbian persons live such lives, the scriptures seem silent on the question of their sexual orientation.

Compassion and Abortion

In the context of Texas’ new abortion law, here is something I wrote in 2004 … “I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us.”

Compassion calls us to be life-giving in all we do. And I struggle with that. I am pro-life because God is God of the living. God created all life, and we are responsible for encouraging and preserving life. Human beings do not come to life just at the moment of birth. Abortion – even natural abortion like an early miscarriage – always means a human being, even in the form of a fetus, has died.

Life-giving responses to pregnancy would never make abortion a first choice; indeed, it would always be a final choice. It certainly is for the forming infant. Yet life-giving responses to difficult or unwanted pregnancies may demand choices which fall between the first and the final choices available to us. The life of the mother, both as a physical necessity and as a matter of living responsibly and with dignity, may elicit a compassionate choice for her which would end the pregnancy.

I know that many pro-life advocates reject abortion under any conditions. Some demand that it be called murder. I also know that Jesus never spoke about abortion. So we don’t know what he would say. I also know the Bible does not talk about medically-induced abortions. So we have no direct word from scripture about the matter. Compassion for the woman and for the unborn child might well lead us to decisions which a rigid pro-life position does not allow.

Respect for the woman demands that we at least consider the circumstances of the pregnancy, the irresponsibility and perhaps abuse of the man involved, the potential consequences of giving birth, and similar factors. Compassion for the unborn child might mean considering what kind of life that child would have and sometimes suggest that ending the pregnancy is more compassionate, more life-giving, than giving birth.

Compassion often leads to difficult choices. The poverty, abuse, and violence of our world make it impossible at times to choose what normally would be best or right. I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us. It is not always a possibility. Sometimes life has become so complex and difficult that we must make choices we don’t want to make.

I am also pro-choice because the choice is not mine to make. I am not that woman, and I cannot judge her heart. Many Christians who call themselves pro-life also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq where over 1,200 Americans – not to mention perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, including unborn children – have died as I write this. Can such an invasion ever be the “best” or “right” choice? Even for people who supported the military action, surely it was not the first choice. If they believed there had been some other way, would they have thought the U.S. should have invaded? I hope that most pro-life Christians would give a negative answer.

Pro-life principles, to be consistent, must respect the lives of all people. How can we support a ban on abortions and support an all-out military invasion of another country, knowing that it must result in destruction and death for many people? How can we support a ban on abortions and support the dissemination of automatic weapons and the state-sponsored killing of other human beings in prison? Compassion is pro-life. But pro-life is something more than a narrow opposition to abortion. Compassion is life-giving, desiring life for all human beings. It makes us willing to do whatever we can to save lives and to make those lives we save as safe and strong and stable as possible.

pp. 79-82 – “Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.” https://jimmylreader.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/moral-values1.pdf

Only one thing is most important

The question of my heart and mind has always
been: “What did Jesus say was most important?” That
question guides my interpretation of scripture. And in my
reading of church history and doctrine, that has been the
central question – if not always the only question – of the

As Christians we take the name of Christ, of Jesus,
saying in effect that the way of Jesus is our way, that the
words and life of Jesus guide us in all our decisions.
What, then, is most important according to Jesus?
Is there one thing, above all else, by which we make moral
decisions and value judgments in this life? I am convinced
the clear answer is “yes.”

The most important thing is love. Nothing is more
important than the love of God and of one another.
That’s what I learned growing up in church.

Matthew’s gospel tells the story this way. An
expert in the Jewish law, with its more than 600 commandments and a multitude of interpretations, came to
Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” I can see Jesus answering
without hesitation because he lived his whole life this way :
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is
the first and greatest commandment. And the second
is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law
and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:34-40]

I preached the same message 51 years ago that I
preach today. If we love God and each other, we fulfill the
other desires of God as well. All other laws and commandments
of religion, if they come from God’s will, are
summed up in this one thing. After extensive reading,
study, preaching, teaching, and testing it in life and in the
church for three decades, I am convinced more than ever
that this is true, that this is the central message of Jesus.

Jesus is not the only one who said it, however. He was quoting
Moses, according to the tradition, from Deuteronomy 6 and
Leviticus 19. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome:
[All the commandments] are summed up in this one rule:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm
to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the
law. [Romans 13:9-10]

In 1 John, we read these challenging words to the
church: Whoever does not love does not know God,
because God is love….If we love one another, God
lives in us and his love is made complete in us….God
is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in
him….Anyone who does not love his brother, whom
he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
[See 1 John 4:7-21]

Love as the all-encompassing moral value is the
word of Jesus to us, the Word of God. This is the message
of the New Testament, and I believe of the whole Bible.
All things are determined by our willingness to love God
and to love people. Our moral choices, our cultural and
religious values, our individual decisions – all are to be
formed by this one supreme rule: To love God and one

From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church
pp. 25-28.

He really said that?

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says:

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone
takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back….
If you do good to those who are good to you, what
credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’
expecting to be repaid in full.”

And then the clincher:
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to
them without expecting to get anything back.”
And why would we do this seemingly impossible
thing? Because God “is kind to the ungrateful and
wicked.” [See Luke 6:27-36]

God is good to all people, not just those who love God.
The kindness, mercy, forgiveness,
and love of God go out to everyone regardless of
their moral character or level of faith. And we are called to
live the same way.

Jesus directly contradicts a major theme of the
Hebrew scriptures
, saying that God does not seek revenge
on “ungrateful and wicked” people. God does not
withhold good gifts from people because they are not
people of faith. God is kind, loving, and generous to all.

(See pages 24-25 in Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.)