by J. Barrie Shepherd
Wipe & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Ore. 237 pages
When I received J. Barrie Shepherd’s newest book, “Destination Bethlehem,” we were finishing another month filled with regional floods, national shootings and a global refugee crisis. If I had to read about Advent, I didn’t want pretty-looking, abstract words that sounded like they were coming from the corner of someone’s secluded study. I wanted muscular words that sounded like they had faced the world’s realities and yet still dared to declare something about Advent’s hope. I wanted language that could stand in the middle of a busy city sidewalk without getting knocked down.
This is what I appreciate about Shepherd’s writing. Throughout the book, Shepherd reflects on Advent with a compassionate and discerning voice that doesn’t shy away from the anxieties and pains of life. As he admits in the early pages, “if it won’t play in a cancer ward … then whatever it is, is not gospel.” This book is structured as a collection of daily reflections, moving through Advent 1, 2, 3, 4, and then Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Twelve Days of Christmas and New Year’s Day. The reflections come in a various formats, from poetry to meditations to prayers. Each day, Shepherd explores recognizable emotions and situations, digging into them with honesty and faith — and sometimes even a dash of humor. One poem mentions the fear around an “orange terror alert” and the “same-old headlines.” Another meditation names the social pressure of Christmas cards, catalogs and invitations. Then after such thoughts, with a wink, Shepherd describes the time he caught himself driving aggressively, trying to shave 40 seconds off his commuting time — so that he could go prepare for a sermon about “patience.”
Several of Shepherd’s phrases resonated with me after I closed the book, including the way he describes our surprise that “before we know it … Bethlehem beckons” and our hunger for a “momentary yet still mending melody.” However, the lovely language does not come without something upon which to chew and ruminate. Shepherd still asks pointed questions to the reader that demand deeper reflection (“Are you looking for prosperity … for recognition … for adventure?”). While the poems in this volume use colloquialisms — such as “just asking” and “keep your eyes peeled” — too often to be considered innovators of language, I do believe that this use of familiar phrases reveals the book’s true beauty: Shepherd is writing for a wide range of readers and he doesn’t want his writing to get in the way of their own reflection.
Thus, this book can be appreciated by the busy, inexperienced worshipper in the pew as well as the very experienced (dare we say jaded?) church leader in the pulpit. Groups or individuals could use it as a devotional resource. Some pieces might be used liturgically, such as the strong “A Prayer for Hope in Advent.”
In the end, Shepherd’s simple eloquence is quite refreshing. He isn’t trying to make us gasp with wonder at his writing. That is not the point here. Instead, throughout this worthwhile volume, Shepherd wants to guide the reader into a more meaningful experience of Advent. Through helpful images, insights and questions, Shepherd uses words to illuminate the ever-more-wonder-full drama of the Word Made Flesh.
KATHRYN LESTER-BACON is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.