“What’s your favorite class?” I inquired.
Deja, now a senior at Montclair State University, is studying jurisprudence law. Since grade school I’ve had the privilege to watch her grow—admiring her grit, self reflection, creativity. She’s a poet at heart. But law school is her aspiration.
This day we were traveling to an appointment together—a rare chance to catch up on college life since the pandemic began. Her answer surprised me.
“Introduction to Classical Music during my freshman year,” she confided after a brief hesitation. “I needed GE credits to fit my schedule. Monday mornings were open—8am!” She took a breath and chuckled.
“My expectations were pretty low. I’d never listened to classical. I grew up listening to 90’s R&B, Whitney Houston and the rap artist Nicki Minaj. Can you imagine me and Beethoven at 8am?”
I recalled my own college experience. Searching those course catalogues, looking for GE credits that weren’t over-subscribed—classes nobody wanted. Astronomy, Chaucer, Statistics at some early morning hour. I could identify. I smiled.
“So I learned about Beethoven and Mozart,” she continued with amusement. “I listened to their music and discovered its impact on almost every musical genre. It really broadened my world. Our professor, so passionate about the subject.”
Fascinating, isn’t it? The highlight of a student’s college career is a randomly chosen class. Selected for needed credits, the class opens her mind to a new world of thought and perspective.
“My final paper,” she laughed. “I compared the rapper Kendrick Lamar to Beethoven. They had a lot in common, you know? My professor loved it.” I asked Deja for a copy.
Deja’s story got me thinking about why new experiences are so critical for our lives. Humans fall into ruts. We succumb to comfortable routines. Creatures of habit. With little critical reflection we absorb the social mores of our surroundings. We tend to go with the flow—until we are challenged.
Sensing her childlike exuberance, I attempted to recall the last time I intentionally welcomed an experience that turned my thoughts upside down. When did I last place myself in the middle of a story that shook my assumptions and challenged my biases—causing me to live more fully? I couldn’t remember…
And why not? I need to reflect.
But how about the Christmas story to create a little dissonance? As I re-read St. Luke’s account this week, I was struck by a thought: Why do the heavenly angels visit the shepherds in an obscure field? (2:20) Why make a dramatic proclamation of good news where nobody notices? Seriously. Think about it for a second.
It’s quite a show out there in no man’s land—effort seemingly wasted on a few lowly nobodies. Remember the Angel’s message to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” And then the heavenly tabernacle choir shows up on cue singing/saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.” Lights. Camera. Action. Where’s the audience?
Seems odd to me. This is a BIG story—the story that alters human history. A good launch campaign is needed. The marketing strategy seems to miss the mark. God’s PR firm needs to be fired. You and I could plan better.
But a new kind of story is being written and catches everyone off-balance. All the assumptions of a coming Messiah are turned upside down. Leaders—many who controlled the religious narrative of their day—aren’t even invited to share this announcement with their followers. Nor would they. The story is too radical. They can’t wrap their minds around: A teen mother of no stature. No political endorsements. Born in a stable. No royal fanfare. No military procession. Ironically—in this new story—the shepherds are probably the only people willing and able to carry this improbable news. When you live at the bottom of the social barrel, there’s nothing to lose.
Advent is a time to reflect deeply on the story of Christmas and what it means for the way we live our lives. Maybe this year—if we’re intentional about opening our hearts and minds—something new will resonate with each of us. Deja meeting Beethoven at 8am sets a city kid in a new direction. Unassuming, unsuspecting, uneducated shepherds open themselves to a new story sending our world in a new direction. I’m glad those shepherds moved beyond their initial fear and discovered joy in the manger. It gives me hope that the same can happen for us.
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