December 22, 2010

Someone Else's Child

This article was first presented as a worship talk at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists on December 22, 2009.—Editors.
Misfortune fell on Miss B. This elegant, educated, and erudite young woman had just finished her elementary education degree at the city college. Through the luck of the sponsorship lottery she landed a job teaching a class of third and fourth graders in a one-store, three-grain-elevator, no-barbershop town on the prairies of western Canada. It was not the preferred environment for someone accustomed to art and literature and music. Her classroom was filled with 28 “country bumpkins”—hayseed in their hair, dirt in their fingernails, and the smell of barnyard on their boots.
So one can imagine it was with a bit of apprehension that she agreed to the school principal’s request for her class to participate in the annual school Christmas program. They were to reenact scenes from the Christmas story.
The cast of characters in the Christmas story must be a producer’s dream. There’s room for every talent and idiosyncrasy from the wise and the simple to the cunning and the crafty to the wanderers and the wonderers.
Miss B chose Marjorie* to play the part of Mary—petite Marjorie, who was quiet and shy, with a countenance of innocence in the classroom but a rather different character on the playground.

When Miss B asked who wanted to be the Wise Men, every boy put up his hand. Few had distinguished themselves in this classification, so she just selected at random: Warren, Matt, Raymond.
2010 1541 page24Then there were shepherds and a chorus of angels—all girls, of course. Wayne became the innkeeper; Arlene was a shining star; Larry, who couldn’t remember his lines, acted the role of Herod; Leslie, who had not yet built a secure foundation as a scholar, was the donkey. The rest of the class became sheep.
In rechecking her list, Miss B discovered that no one had been selected for the part of Joseph. The arms of a kid at the back of the room flailed wildly to grab her attention. She asked, “Lowell, would you be willing to play the part of Joseph?” With those words she rescued him from being a sheep.
The role of Joseph actually is not difficult. There are no speeches to make, no songs to sing, no lines to memorize. It’s basically a supporting role. Joseph is close to Mary but never in the spotlight; instead, he hangs around its edge.
The hardest part for Joseph in Miss B’s class pageant was to hold Mary’s hand. The polarization of the genders is at its most extreme for people in grades 3 and 4. It’s generally a passing thing—well-nigh extinct by grade 6. But in grades 3 and 4 the entire atmosphere is fully charged with repulsion. Thus, when Miss B asked Joseph to take Mary by the hand, the Wise Men broke out into raucous laughter. Apart from this great indignity, however, the role of Joseph is rather benign. Basically, it involves being there and looking a bit overwhelmed by all else that happens.
Only many years later it began to dawn on me that the real Joseph didn’t have it quite so easy. Contrasted with the role of Joseph I played as a youth in that pageant, the real Joseph was involuntarily sucked up, so to speak, into the vortex of cosmic history. Great events that form the watershed of time took place in his day, in his home, and with his family.
Joseph as Mentor and Model
Maybe it’s the experience of being an adult and a parent or just the fruit of reflection that lifts Joseph from relative obscurity to a mentor and model for life’s journey even today. Four ways stand out in which this man sets an enduring example:
1Joseph made a marriage out of what looked like a mess. He protected Mary, who was the most vulnerable in the situation, and in doing so he took upon himself the ridicule and suspicion of a skeptical crowd. People then, as now, observed no limits to their gossip. One can easily imagine how, for the sake of laughter, they distorted Joseph and Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy. People hung in little groups on the street corners. When they saw Joseph coming, they would whisper to each other, “Here comes the holy ghost.” Loud guffaws broke out within his hearing. Joseph endured the pain and rejection so that the vulnerability of Mary could not be exploited. What an example for today!
2Following Jesus’ birth, Joseph obeyed God by going to Egypt even though he didn’t understand the big picture. The record seems to imply that he didn’t take the time to reason this out for himself; he simply got up and obeyed (see Matt. 2). How does one come to know the voice of God so well that it’s recognized and obeyed, even when it goes counter to human intuition and logic? Does it not seem to us here and now that when people speak about the call of God in their lives, it’s virtually always a call that’s aligned fully with their intuitions, inclinations, and ambitions? Who can recognize the voice of God when it’s entirely contrary to human rationalizations? Joseph did. How I wish I could. We speak of the dignity and depth of Abraham’s response to God. It seems that Joseph’s response is similar. Abraham is called to give up a son. Joseph is called to accept a Son who is not his own—and this Son is the reason for so many changes in Joseph’s life.
3Joseph performed a father’s role for a Son who was not his own. He passed on to “Someone else’s Child” the traditions and trade of his time. Though the biblical record is relatively silent, we must not conclude that life at home had no huge impact on young Jesus. Today we hear of so many children who reach adulthood with the imprint and impact of their fathers. Often these people carry the baggage of faulty father images and try to navigate through life with a disfigured self-image.
The physical shape of the body, the color of the eyes, the slant of the nose, the curls or wiry hair, are all factors of heredity—the imprint in our DNA of characteristics from our ancestors. But families create heredity also. It’s passed on (sometimes subconsciously) through routines repeated again and again. The way we celebrate special occasions, our attitudes toward others, our favorite foods—these are usually rooted in family customs. In the course of growing up, a daughter learns to speak just like her mother, a son walks and laughs like his father. Family values are communicable. Family environments have a huge role in shaping the trajectory of our lives. Sam Levinson (1911-1980), an American humorist, television host, and journalist, surely in jest claimed that even insanity is hereditary: you can get it from your children.
Joseph saw in Jesus “Someone else’s Child.” How would our families, our communities, our churches be different today if we all could see one another as “Someone else’s child”? What does it mean to see your children, your own flesh and blood, as children of God? To see your neighbor, your colleague, or your adversary in this light?
4Joseph gave to Jesus the best he could and then released Him to a higher calling. From Joseph (as well as from Mary) Jesus learned to recognize the voice of God. This is perhaps the most delicate duty of parents—to let their children develop their own identity in response to God. Perhaps it’s not so strong a tradition today as in Joseph’s day—but we still see plenty of evidence of parents who strive to make their children into little images of Mom and Dad. How did Jesus navigate the rebellious phase of adolescence when individuals see their identity more often in contrast to their parents rather than in sync with them?
Might it be that Joseph recognized that Jesus was not his to restrain, but his to release to a life uniquely His own? He gave Jesus what he could—an example of humble integrity, a trade with which to make His way in the world, and an appetite to hear and follow the voice of God. Could Joseph be a role model for fathers today?
Time Again for the Christmas Story
The Christmas story is told and retold each time this season of the year rolls round. There’s a danger that it might become common and ordinary—an esthetic backdrop to the busyness of our lives and the incessant demands of so many things that command and demand our time and attention.
But if we will listen intentionally to every fresh telling of the story, we’ll find a mystery and a majesty to enlighten our pathway. And even those who serve as “supporting cast members” in the grand narrative of God can show us timeless virtue and saintly character.
* Names in this article have been changed to protect identities.
Lowell C. Cooper is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published December 23, 2010.