“I do not know what will become of me and I do not care much.… I wish I were fifteen years old again. I believe I might become a stunning man: but somehow or other I do not seem in the way to come to much now.” -Phillips Brooks, after being fired from his job as a teacher
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” -Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Brooks sat atop a horse, behind him lay Jerusalem; before him, the flickering lights of Bethlehem; and surrounding him was the field where smelly shepherds had been serenaded by celestial creatures thousands of years ago, announcing the birth of a newborn who would change the course of history. It was Christmas Eve, 1865 and he was about to participate in the Christmas worship service in the church of the nativity in Bethlehem, a high honor for a young pastor. Brooks was overcome with awe as he took it all in. Was this sight any different than it had been thousands of years ago on the night the shepherds made their way to the animal feed trough that held a newborn? Was it any different than the night Joseph and Mary had arrived, weary from their journey, tired, sore, and burdened by the Roman occupation and oppression? Was Joseph’s mind filled with the same self doubt and questioning?
A few years ago, I stood in that same spot, looking out over that same vision of the little town of Bethlehem and I understood how Brooks was inspired with the words “how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” I too, asked those questions: did Mary and Joseph have any idea what was happening with their lives? What they would do? Where they would go?
Accounts vary on what Brooks was thinking. Some say he was burned out on ministry and the sight of Bethlehem not only inspired the poem he wrote but also a renewal within him. Perhaps. Some accounts just say he was enjoying the view. Again, perhaps. I like to think he was doing his own soul searching, as any pastor will do. As any human will do, no matter how much you love your job or your ministry, we all find ourselves questioning “Did I make the right choice? Is it worth it? Am I actually making a difference in the world?”
We are on the cusp of a new year, a time often filled with reminiscing and soul searching. What did the last year hold? What will the new year bring? How will I make a change to be a better person? To grow and develop personally? To advance my career? My ministry? My relationships? We each become Joseph, Mary, Phillips Brooks, standing in a field in Israel saying “What am I doing? Where am I going?”
I’ve often wondered what Mary and Joseph did following the birth of Jesus. We know that they were from Nazareth but had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. They were forced to flee to Egypt to escape maniacal threats from Herod. When they came back to the country did they return to Nazareth to family and neighbors? To familiarity and routine? Or did they try to make a fresh start where they would not be shamed for having a baby out of wedlock? What would they need most as they started their lives together? What did they want for this new baby?
I’ve thought a lot about this aspect of the birth narrative this Christmas especially as I find myself in that place of soul searching, of asking “Where can I go for a fresh start?” I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of my year, so I won’t retell all that here. But I will tell you that much of my year was characterized by a general sense of anxiety. I resigned from my position as pastor, and after a few months of relief, I began to get restless. It was time to move on, find a new career, find a new place in the world. I had moved in with my sister in Omaha, a temporary home as I got back on my feet. And now it was time to move on. Just as Joseph may have been asking “Is Bethlehem a good place to settle and raise a family? Or should we head back to Nazareth?” I was asking “Is Omaha a good place to settle and put down roots? Or is there another place to go?” I desperately wanted a reason to stay or a reason to go. There were a few times when I almost had it, but it didn’t work out.
Phillips Brooks moved on from that field, back to his church in Boston, a position that was obviously suited to him. Three years later, inspired by that Christmas in the shepherds’ field, he wrote a simple children’s song for a Christmas Sunday School program that has captured the hearts of millions and is still sung today at Christmas time.
I don’t know if Omaha is the place for me. I don’t know what the year ahead holds. I didn’t find a career that gave me a reason to stay or go. I didn’t find a boyfriend to give me a reason to stay or go. But I’m tired of limbo, so I made my own decision. A couple weeks before Christmas I signed a rental lease for a house in Omaha. I will stay. For now.
Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.
-Phillips Brooks, omitted 3rd verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem