Keeping Watch: A Christmas Confession

View from the courtyard of King's College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

View from the courtyard of King’s College at Cambridge University, July 2014.

The name Greer, according to most sources, means something about being watchful or observant. Those who know me well might be tempted to assume, therefore, that my given name is somewhat of a misnomer. I try not to think about how often I’ve misplaced or neglected important items—like the time I was preparing to leave Ukraine and thought I’d scoured the apartment to locate the belongings I needed to take with me on my journey home to America. I’m embarrassed to say that several months passed before I realized that I’d left my Social Security card on one of the shelves in that Crimean apartment. I’m even more embarrassed to say that I likely would never have noticed the card’s absence had it not been for one of the missionaries who took my place after I’d left. She found the card one day and mailed it to me in an envelope we’re both grateful the postal workers kept track of.

So much for great powers of observation.

But my name has another meaning too, and it’s one that I find particularly interesting around Christmastime—especially this year. If etymologists are correct, then the roots embedded in the name Greer (a variant of Gregory) tie back to words related to shepherds and flocks. Something about the name implies a person guiding herds, watching over them, leading the sheep. And that makes sense. After all, shepherds need all the watchfulness, vigilance, and observation that Greer apparently connotes. How else could they keep track of the lambs, or prevent predators from attacking the flocks? Watchfulness defines shepherdry; it’s the hallmark of the profession.

Or, at least, in my limited experiences with sheep, that’s how it seems to me. But growing up in a suburban town known more for orchards than livestock, I can’t actually say that I’ve seen many herdsmen at work. In fact, a good portion of my exposure to shepherds has come just once a year when my family and fellow church-goers spend some time reviewing Luke 2 in the Bible to celebrate Jesus’s birth.

“There were in the same country,” we’re told, “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

The shepherds—all those greers gathered in the field with their sheep—likely sat or kneeled or stood in wide-eyed wonder as the “multitude of the heavenly host” started shouting Gloria in excelsis Deo! Then they scrambled off to see the Newborn, and after that they told everyone they could about the miracle they had witnessed and the salvation they had seen lying asleep in a stall.

When the angels arrived, the shepherds had been “keeping watch” over the sheep. They’d been living up to their names and their job titles, calmly doing exactly what they’d done every night without fail. I like to think that they had kept watch over their faith just as much as they had over their flocks. Perhaps that’s why the angels appeared to them—the shepherds had “eyes to see” and believe in God’s might (Deuteronomy 29:4). They had learned vigilance, and that was the trait God sought in the first, humble witnesses He selected to testify of the birth of His Son. Let them be poor, let them be frightened, but let them be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let their tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the stable, the manger, the swaddling clothes, and the Infant. “And this shall be a sign unto you,” the angel had told them (Luke 2:12), as if implying: “Remember these details. Watch for them. God’s giving you proof of His wonders and power. You’ve learned to keep track of each sheep in your fold—now remember the Lamb of God too.”

The angels’ appearance was almost certainly unexpected, but the shepherds were ready. They were keeping watch. Their eyes were open to notice the mysteries of the Creator of heaven and earth. But that doesn’t mean that they were anxious or impatient in waiting for signs and blessings; in all probability, not a single shepherd had agonized that night over the fact that God hadn’t yet sent the Messiah. They believed enough to wait and watch, and they trusted enough not to worry or waver. Without developing any ulcers from the angst of perpetual, impatient expectation, the shepherds kept watch, and in that way they were prepared to see the Hand of the Lord. Their watchfulness was proportionate to—or perhaps indicative of—their faith.

In the title of this essay I noted that these thoughts constitute a confession, and this seems like a good point to transition into that portion of things. I confess feeling bitterly jealous of the shepherds for enjoying a visit from angels. I confess worrying that my faith isn’t as strong as it ought to be, and certainly not as strong as the herdsmen’s. And I confess that it’s sometimes hard to “keep watch” for the Hand of God when it’s night and it feels like I’ve been sitting alone with my flock in a field with no heavenly hosts and no stars and no signs.

This past year has been exceptionally difficult for me. It might not have seemed that way to others who’ve watched me; on the surface it looks like a whole lot of stuff has gone right, with absolutely no catches. I lived in Washington DC doing research for the Smithsonian Institution—a dream come true for many history majors. I traveled to Britain where I studied at Cambridge University, explored the streets of London, hiked in the Highlands of Scotland, and encountered some of the world’s best examples of art, theater, and literature. I snagged a second publication. My résumé grew, and—more importantly—so did my circle of friends. To top it all off, I became an aunt and spent time with my beautiful niece once a week, watching as she learned to roll over, smile, and “sing.”

And trust me, I really am grateful for these (and dozens of other) marvelous blessings. But woven throughout all the moments and miracles, there’s been a higher-than-usual level of uncertainty, worry, concern. I’ve faced some pretty big decisions lately, and in each decision-making process I’ve studied and analyzed, planned, pondered, and prayed, wanting nothing more than to do God’s will, fearing nothing more than to make a mistake.

And in every single decision, I haven’t felt so much as a nudge from the Spirit regarding the paths I should take. No inklings, no promptings. Certainly no angelic visitations or heavenly choirs. Time after time I’ve just had to jump in, blind, begging God not to let me wander too far without the comfort and peace of being able to slip my hand into His and walk without wondering where I stood in relation to the Father Whose guidance means more to me than anything else.

A few months ago I wrote about one of those trying decisions—the process of choosing to go to Cambridge despite how illogical it seemed, despite my fears, and even despite the fact that it meant missing my grandmother’s funeral. (See “Remember Your Vera!”) I wrote the bulk of that essay on a plane jetting over the Atlantic Ocean, finished it up in a hotel in London, and posted it to this blog as soon as I reached my hostel on Fitzwilliam Street in Cambridge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. At that moment I was trying to keep a stiff upper lip, trying to commit myself to have faith that everything would turn out all right.

And it did. But only after several of the loneliest, homesickest weeks of my entire life. Sometimes the pain was so intense that I couldn’t focus on my studies, so I’d abandon the books on my desk, or the outlines of research papers on my laptop, and walk a few blocks to the River Cam—the only place where I felt somewhat peaceful. I don’t know how many times I strolled the banks of the Cam, but the tally is likely in the dozens. Sometimes I’d go running there, and once I even skipped out on a formal dinner just to take a run along the river, preferring the solitude of a two-mile jog to forced chit-chat with others when I felt so crummy inside.

I recall several nights when I cried in my bed, praying—out loud or in thought—for God’s help. I felt that I had no clear purpose, which made me wonder whether I’d really made the right decision in choosing to go on the study abroad. The choice had been hard, and I’d had so many doubts. Maybe I was just wasting my time. Maybe I wasn’t where I should be. Maybe my internal distress was divine confirmation that something was desperately wrong.

What I wouldn’t have given then for an angel to show up and say, “Fear not!” or “And this shall be a sign unto you.” Or perhaps a more colloquial, “Buck up—everything’s going to be fine. Keep your eyes peeled, and soon enough you’ll see God’s Hand unfolding the plan and the mercies He’s preparing you for.”

But of course no angel ever appeared in my small room, and those tearful prayers generally ended with my fading into sleep before waking up to another day of struggling to find meaning and purpose and drive.

During those seven weeks of waiting, God heard my prayers, although the answer He sent was just as unexpected to me as the seraphs must have been to the shepherds. But perhaps if I’d been just a little more watchful I could’ve prepared myself better to receive it. I hesitate to share many of the details, since the story isn’t just mine; it doesn’t seem right to outline someone else’s ongoing experience, especially when it involves personal matters. But I can explain that a feeling overcame me as I stood in front of King’s College on one of the last nights of the program, talking with a friend who opened my eyes to the glory of God because, she claimed, I had done the same thing to hers over the course of our interactions during the study abroad. Apparently our daily, quotidian conversations had more purpose than I’d ever realized. Somehow they’d helped my friend consider—for the very first time—that she might have a Father somewhere in the vastness of Heaven.

My friend cried and I cried, and the Spirit, at long last, whispered to my mind: See, Greer, everything’s working out. There really is meaning in all of this. This isn’t the only reason why God willed you to come here, but it certainly is one, and it matters a lot. There’s been direction and guidance all along—you just haven’t seen it. You haven’t let yourself see.

I hadn’t been keeping watch, too blinded by fears to pay attention to miracles. But God had mercifully laid out a blessing that changed me and calmed me. That night I cried as I talked with my family on Skype and explained that my time in Cambridge had not been in vain.

I wish I could say that every uncertainty in my life has panned out as clearly as this one. What’s more, I wish I could say that since this experience I’ve made impressive strides in showing more faith, watching more carefully for evidence of God’s Hand at work, trusting more fully the Father I know will never forsake or desert me. But I guess I’m too stubborn, too faithless—which has brought me to tears many more times since then as I’ve prayed in confusion and fear. I reckon that there are still many more tearful nights lurking in the near future. – And I reckon that God will be there with me too, just as He was out in Cambridge.

Which brings me to another confession—this one a bit more the way Jesus meant the word when He turned His apostles into full-time witnesses, giving them the role of the shepherds who had witnessed His birth (see Matthew 10:32).

I confess the reality of a Savior I can’t see. I confess the “man of sorrows” Who is simultaneously the “high priest of good things to come”—and I confess that it’s no mistake for those two titles to go together (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 9:11). After all, the Child all those shepherds scurried through the streets of Bethlehem to greet grew to be the Man Who “[went] forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind . . . that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).

I confess that He has succored me according to my infirmities. And I confess that I still need His succor.

At the close of what has to be one of the hardest, best, teariest years of my life, I thank God for the mercies with which He sustained me, even when I was worrying instead of watching. And I pledge to try a bit harder to be more like the shepherds who witnessed the birth of the Lamb, calmly “[doing] all things that [lay] in [their] power” as they kept watch over their sheep “with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:17).

I have no idea what next year will bring as I face the decisions and changes that swarm graduation, grad school, job hunting, family, finances, housing, moving out, moving on, growing up. More than ever, I need to live up to my name—to be worthy to witness God’s miracles through vigilant faith even when things seem dark and no angels show up to proclaim the glad tidings my heart aches to hear.

For strength, I look to my namesakes, the shepherds, the greers. Like them, let me be poor, let me be frightened, but let me be watchful. And with that watchfulness, let my tear-filled eyes take in every detail of the world God saved by sending His Son to a cradle of hay.

And all this shall be a sign unto me.