It is difficult to know how to encourage children to open to the deeper significance of the Christmas season. Gifts, feasts, decorations, and elaborate celebrations are so compelling.
For the past 17 years I have written a Christmas story which I have read to the children at our Christmas Day service. In these stories I have attempted to keep the story of this season alive for our children, while at the same time, encouraging their hearts to open to the deeper realities towards which this story would guide us.
My first attempt at writing a childrens’ Christmas story was called “The Littlest Shepherd.” It is posted below, slightly reworked since 1994 but not substantially changed. I may post more of these stories over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas.
My name is Nathan. I am the littlest shepherd. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m not really a shepherd, at least not yet. One day, when I’m big, I will be a shepherd. Right now I help out with the real shepherds. They let me hang around because I don’t have any family of my own.
I try to be useful. The shepherds feed me and let me sleep by their fire at night. I carry water and gather firewood. Shepherds can be pretty rough, but mostly they treat me well enough.
Sometimes, when they have to stay out in the fields, the shepherds send me into the village to get food.
Once, I was coming back from Bethlehem with food for the shepherds. It was late at night, but the sky was clear. I could see millions of stars, tiny points of light in the dark night sky. It was so quiet walking alone over the hills. I don’t usually feel afraid in the hills by myself, even at night. I’m used to being alone and I have a sling shot and I can run fast so most things don’t frighten me.
But on this night, there was something strange in the air. There was not even the slightest breeze. And it was so quiet I could hear the sound of my footsteps on the soft ground.
As I walked I felt smaller than usual. I thought that I was all alone in the world and if anything bad happened to me not one person would really notice or care very much. I wanted to turn around and go back to Bethlehem. But I knew there was nowhere I would be welcome. So I just kept walking.
After a while I could see the light of the shepherds’ fire on the next hill. I only had to go down the path, across a little valley with a stream at the bottom and up the other side. I would soon be warm and safe sitting by the fire. The shepherds would cook some of the food I was bringing and share it with me. They might be gruff because of being so hungry. But being with gruff shepherds was better than being alone.
I walked faster, even though the food was heavy.
When I got to the bottom of the valley by the stream things began to get really weird. Behind the hill in front of me, there was a strange light. I thought I could hear music. I hurried across the little stream and up the hill on the other side. As I climbed, the light in the sky got brighter and brighter. The music got louder and louder.
I was getting so scared that I wanted to drop my food bags and run. But I knew if I didn’t bring food to the shepherds, they would be pretty mad. What could I tell them? That I heard music and saw a light in the sky and got scared so I dropped the food and ran? They would think I had stolen their money instead of buying food and that I made up this crazy story about lights and music. They would beat me for sure. I didn’t know if I was more scared of what I was seeing and hearing, or if I was more scared of the shepherds.
Pretty soon I started to run. The two big bags I was carrying on my shoulders were slapping against my sides. Twice I stumbled and nearly lost my balance.
When I got to the top of the hill, the campfire was a little way to the left. Now the music was really loud and the sky was almost as bright as day. I was sweating and panting from running so hard. But I kept running along the hilltop to the fire.
And you know what? When I got there the shepherds were lying around on the ground, all of them fast asleep, snoring like a bunch of old donkeys. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t like being the only one awake with all the music and the light in the sky. But what if I woke them up and it stopped? Or, what if I woke them up and they couldn’t see the light or couldn’t hear the music? Maybe I was just making it all up.
I was getting more and more scared. The sky was shining brighter all the time and it seemed like there was something moving up there, almost like a person in the sky. I thought I heard a voice. It seemed to say, “Don’t be afraid.” Then I was really scared. I made up my mind I was more scared of whatever was going on out there than I had ever been of the shepherds. So, I went to the closest big pile of shepherd lying on the dirt by the fire. I shook him by the shoulder. He woke up and looked around all sleepy and dopey. He sat up and in an angry voice said, “What’s the matter; what’s going on; who woke me up?”
I looked at the drowsy shepherd and knew he was seeing it all just the way I was seeing it. I could tell by his face that he was hearing the music. I’ve never seen a shepherd look scared before but this big, bearded dirty old shepherd sure looked terrified to me. His growling had woken the other three shepherds and they all sat there on the ground, staring into the sky.
Then the voice came again. The same as the first time, it said, “Don’t be afraid.” But this time it went on. It said something about good news and a saviour and a baby born in Bethlehem. Then there were lots of voices singing the most beautiful music I had ever heard. They were singing about God and peace and good things for all people on earth. I didn’t really understand what was going on.
Then it stopped. The sky went black and the night was silent and still. There was nothing there. It was so quiet, I couldn’t even move. For the longest time, nobody spoke. No one knew what to do. I could hear everyone’s breathing and could feel my own heart pounding inside my chest. Then Jacob who was the toughest and roughest of all the shepherds stood up. He said, “We better go see this thing.”
And we all went. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do. We walked down the hill I had just come up and across the stream and up the hill on the other side and down into Bethlehem. By the time we got to the village it was nearly dawn. The sky was growing light again but this time it was the sun glowing on the horizon.
Somehow, when we got to Bethlehem we knew where to go, around behind the inn, to the cattle barn. And sure enough, peeking through the door we saw a mother and her husband, and a brand new baby. We went in and stood like big dumb shepherds, and one little dumb shepherd. Nobody knew what to say; but it didn’t seem to matter.
The mother looked at me. She said, “Come, little shepherd; come closer.” My feet were frozen to the ground until one of the shepherds shoved me in the back with his big hand. I walked over to where the mother was sitting cradling her baby in her arm. She drew me in close and took my hand and touched the baby’s cheek with it. Then she said, “Littlest shepherd, because of this baby you will never need to feel alone again.”
After that we left and walked back over the hills to our sheep.
Ever since that day, there has been something inside me which has said that, even though I am still little on the outside, I am big on the inside. I touched the baby God sent to be good news for everyone. God chose to be with me in a special way. I will always remember that day. I will always have that presence inside me making me strong and making me big even when I feel little and afraid.