Christmas found five of us—Clay and I, toddler Sarah and newborn Joel, and a young friend who was having an adventure on a break from college and living with us for six months—squished together in a tiny (nine-hundred-square-foot) gray stucco bungalow. The foundation had settled, leaving the basement steps slanted and uneven, with a bit of effect on the rest of the house. Most of the rooms were about as big as a large walk-in closet. Rain would pour down our walls—inside!—when it rained. Pigeons often found their way into the attic and then got stuck there. But the energy of young love, youthful ideals, toddler glee, and discoveries every day with a newborn son sang happiness and vibrancy into our lives.
Joel had a funny way of crying when he was hungry—a kind of a growl. That gave us pause; we had never heard of a baby who growled instead of crying. But we thought he was adorable, and Sarah was absolutely smitten. She toddled around telling everyone who would listen that “Dod dave us a baby boy—just like Desus was when He came to Mary on Christmas!” Having heard the nativity story in the dark of our chapel one evening, she was sure that Joel was our own Jesus, and she would watch by the window each evening for the angels to appear to sing him a song.
Maybe it was her childlike love of the story that inspired me to host our first Shepherds’ Meal that Christmas Eve. To be honest, I can’t remember. But I’ll never forget the evening itself.
We thought our little orphan home had never looked more beauti- ful. Flames on crimson candles shivered and waved each time visitors rang our bell to signal their arrival and pushed open the front door. Our tiny antique table was laden with winter bounty—red apples, golden pears, and large polished hazelnuts—that gleamed in the candlelight. Seven of us in mismatched wooden chairs crowded around a table built for four, content to share in the friendly companionship of a festive evening. No one wanted to be alone on this frigid Christmas Eve.
We were something of a motley crowd, but so happy to be together—a young Austrian woman whose spouse had just abandoned her for another man, a Taiwanese secretary who worked at the United Nations headquarters, a refugee from the Middle East, and a young missionary from England, lonely on his very first time away from his family. Sarah sat chattering in my lap and talking about the angels. The friend who was living with us helped me serve the simple meal, and we all sang “Silent Night” as a prayer, because it was the only carol everyone knew.
Four different languages were our mother tongues. As to religious conviction, we had one Catholic, one Evangelisch (Lutheran Reformed), an Asian Baptist, a British Anglican, and one agnostic who looked on and listened with curiosity. But hearts were opened by the simple beauty of bread, cheese, and warm herbed soup as we spoke of the shepherds who had found and worshiped Jesus on that first Christmas so long ago. And my own heart was warmed by the gathering of friends from such different cultures who shared our table and celebrated the love that whispered His reality through the moments of the evening.
I remember thinking that this was what heaven would be like—all unified, all tied together by the sharing of friendship and food as we celebrated Jesus’ first coming, each worshiping from our own tradi- tions, but grateful for the divine Love that had kissed our evening with His presence.
There was something so special about that first Shepherds’ Meal that we couldn’t wait to “do it again next year.” And so we have. In the thirty-plus years since then, our family has enjoyed a Shepherds’ Meal every Christmas Eve, no matter where we lived. Even the preparation has become a tradition—a family affair.