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A Place among the Stars

Gregory E. Reynolds

This presentation was prepared for New Hampshire Public Radio for Christmas in 1996. I present it here as an example of Christian witness to a secular audience in a cynical age. Below is a slightly edited transcript of that radio segment.

*          *          *

When you hear the word “Christian” what is your reaction? Perhaps you think: “There go those right wingers flying off the handle again. They always seem to be saying no to something.” You may have the impression that Christianity is largely negative: A giant “NO” to life. Christians may be largely responsible for creating this impression; but I would like to offer a different view. 

Shortly before the new year, I was listening to Alessandro Scarlatti’s “O di Betlemme altera, Pastoral cantata for the birth of Our Lord.”[1] In this magnificent piece Scarlatti celebrates the good fortune of the shepherds as they witness the first breath of Jesus the Christ. In the final aria, the Pastorale, this master of Italian Baroque vocal music offers this stupendous thought:

The greatest fortune was yours, shepherds,
For Jesus has become the Lamb of God.
Offer your hearts at his cradle,
See how pretty he is, and how beautiful!

Leave your flocks and huts,
Yes, forsake your sheep.
He embodies a hope that does not deceive you
And can give you a place amongst the stars.

—play the music here—

In the sixties I was captivated by the enchanting lyrics of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Grateful Dead, and The Incredible String Band. I made my sojourn to Oregon and the Red Wood Forest to live out the dream they so compellingly depicted. I devoted myself to the texts of the counterculture: The I Ching, The Bagavad Gita, and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. I devoured the meditations of Alan Watts, the poems of Kenneth Patchen, and the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse. I lived communal life to the full. Yet the longings of my soul continued unsatisfied. Death, sin, and guilt hounded me back to the East Coast. Then Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix died too young of drug overdoses. The promise of a place among the stars had proved empty. I felt deceived.

In Cambridge I opened the one sacred text I had studiously avoided: the Bible. Like English author and Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, I was “surprised by joy.” Instead of the “dos and don’ts” of my childhood church experience, I discovered God Incarnate come to rescue a hopeless mankind. I found the “eternal weight of glory” of which the apostle Paul writes so passionately. I found a God who came into history to forgive me for my selfishness and teach me a better, and ultimately glorious, way of life.

The world is full of disappointed hopes and dreams that have been dashed on the rocks of reality. Here was hope for lowly shepherds, that transcended national and racial boundaries. Here was a happiness not rooted in temporary things. My intellectual and spiritual longing finally found a place of rest, actually an infinite personal God in whom I could trust without disappointment and who could guide and enable me to be of some use in this poor world. Like Scarlatti’s shepherds I found “a hope that does not deceive and can give you a place amongst the stars.”

Amidst the cynical confusion and meaninglessness of postmodern culture, there is a narrative that is true for all people in all places and for all time. You see Christianity is really a giant “YES” to life.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2018.

[1] Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725), “O di Betlemme altera, Pastoral cantata for the birth of Our Lord,” Choir of the English Concert, Trevor Pinnock conducting from organ and harpsichord, Nancy Argenta, soprano. CD “Gloria” Archiv Produktion, D104904, 1993, Deutsche Grammophon.

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