Wondering and Wandering

Scripture can be found here

Folklorist John Jacob Niles was traveling in North Carolina in the middle of the Great Depression, collecting songs and lyrics, when he met the Morgans, a family of revivalists who made their living going from town to town preaching the gospel. The Morgans were about to  be thrown out of a town called Murphy, because they’d been camped out so long in the town square, cooking on a little fire, doing their washing, and then hanging their wash to dry on a Confederate monument. They were no longer welcome. About his encounter with this family, Niles wrote,

Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out—a tousled, unwashed blonde, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of “I Wonder As I Wander.” At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea.[i]

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky
How Jesus our Savior did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I…?
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

It was a magnificent idea. Despite the decidedly Good Friday feel of the first verse, Niles combined it with two more verses about another small family of limited means, on the move: Joseph and his pregnant fiancée Mary. We meet them tonight, on their 80-or-so mile journey to Bethlehem. And their story soon entwines with others who were out under the sky, the shepherds who were the recipients of the very first birth announcement for Jesus. The announcement didn’t come to a king, mind you, or even a modest local official… dogcatcher, or what have you. The breakout hit of the angel army was released to shepherds, every bit as unwashed as the young girl who first shared her plaintive folk melody that became a beloved Christmas Carol.

This all tells us a lot about God’s intentions here. The gospel shows us straightaway that here we find good news for the poor—we have a couple ready to settle for the night in whatever humble accommodations might be available, baby on the way or no; and we have shepherds, who are pretty much at the bottom of the social ladder, hearing a direct communication from on high. God seeks out the humble and settles among them and says, “I’m here now. It’s going to be alright.” And there is much rejoicing.

But we also have a song that is openly about “wondering,” a word that suggests both a heart full of questions and a heart open to amazement. Late in the passage we read that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”—those would be the words from the shepherds, who were doing a kind of backwards birth announcement by telling Mary and Joseph about the angels, telling them about the baby.

Mary is prone to pondering… maybe even wondering.  She ponders her own encounter with an angel and the strange announcement about her son-to-be. She ponders the fact of childbirth far away from home in strange surroundings. She ponders a jovial and maybe slightly raucous incursion by shepherds who are possibly more excited about the birth than she and Joseph have the energy to be at present.

She ponders a world where the miraculous enters into the lives of poor, on’ry people, like you and like I. That’s “on’ry” as in “ornery,” i. e., prone to crankiness, belligerent, stubborn. But it’s also “on’ry” as in “ordinary,” nothing special, not at all Instagrammable, but just regular.

Presbyterians are on record recognizing the presence of orneriness in humankind. One way to gain a deep appreciation of God’s coming among us is to simply meditate upon the first verse of this song… I wonder… how Jesus came to die… for poor, ordinary people like you and like I. And we recognize that none of us, really, is worthy of the kind of gift God offers us in this birth. God offers to ornery and ordinary humanity the gift of grace, undeserved. The gift of love, unqualified. The gift of forgiveness, unearned. The gift of affirmation that, though we’ve spent centuries pondering (and theologians have spilled rivers of ink theorizing) something we call “original sin,” we are slow to apprehend God’s original blessing—that we are created in love, unique, amazing, in God’s very image and likeness.

Christmas reminds us that every one of us is invited to grow more and more into that image and likeness. There are many ways to be poor. One of the most tragic is to live in the poverty of never reaching out in love to God’s children outside our own tribes. Never knowing the peace that comes with doing what Charles Dickens calls “walking abroad amongst our fellow men.” Nourishing in ourselves the gift of empathy, which is so gorgeously imaged for us in the God who gives it all up to become a fragile baby, to walk abroad as one of us. A German priest, Alfred Delp, walked abroad amongst his fellow humans, and fought against the Nazi regime and helped Jews to escape death in concentration camps. While awaiting his own execution in prison, Delp wrote extensively about Advent and Christmas. He noted that "the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken—the birth is not a romantic wonder,” he said:  “It's a chancy rescue mission from the borders."

I invite you to wonder. I invite you to open your Christmas heart to wondering about all these things and people… the families in exile who run for their lives and who set up camp long enough to have a baby. The nobodies whom God saw fit to receive an angelic legion singing “Glory!” The young girl, now a mother, who sang her own songs of liberation, and who kept wondering and pondering, and opening herself to whatever it God had planned next.

And I invite you to wander… in your heart, to go to Bethlehem… or, like the folklorist whose carol will soon be on our lips, to the far reaches of your own town or state or country, where those camped out until the authorities send them on their way preach another, exquisite gospel that might just break your heart open.

I invite you to wonder, and to wander, and to walk abroad amongst your fellow humans, on this and every holy night. Merry, Merry Christmas, my dear ones. And Thanks be to God.

[i] John Jacob Niles, “I Wonder as I Wander,” Religion in America, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/religion-in-america/american-life/niles-i-wonder-as-i-wander/.