When I was a kid, I noticed a bird dangling from the telephone wires that stretched across my back yard. Somehow, that bird had flown directly into the intertwined wires and had gotten its head caught between strands. It was flapping its wings in desperation to free itself, but it was quickly losing strength and was only succeeding in wearing itself out.
I was devastated. I watched the bird give up and resign to death. I went indoors, visibly shaken, and told my parents what was happening.
My whole family went outside to see the poor bird, but my dad soon disappeared and came back with a plan. A tent pole, stretched as far as it would go, was just enough to reach the intertwined wires. As he worked to free the bird, I did what made sense to me. I spoke to it in a calm, soothing voice, assuring the bird that we were trying to help.
Eventually, the bird fell from the wire, free from the pole, into my neighbors yard, where a hungry dog was awaiting a small snack. To the dog’s disappointment, I quickly jumped over the fence and scooped the bird up.
Its body was limp. It wasn’t moving at all, and I was afraid we were too late. We placed it in a shoe box, prepared to give it a proper burial (we were invested in this poor bird at this point!) when we noticed the faint movement of its chest. It was breathing!
We placed the shoebox on my back porch, and I spent several hours talking to it, trying to sooth it. Eventually, it stood up! By evening, it was sitting on the edge of the box! We brought it birdseed and water, and by morning the bird was gone. We had rescued it!
For two summers before that day, we had been feeding birds in our backyard, and identifying them with a bird watcher’s guide. Every new bird that arrived at the feeder was celebrated by my family. I had read that guide more than once, and I was fascinated by the new arrivals. We tried different seed blends to attract different kinds of birds. Word apparently spread, because our back yard was a bird hotspot, and birds came from all around to feast on the seed we put out.
I knew a lot about birds. I had read all about them.
I came close, when that bird was stuck in the telephone wire, to knowing about birds in an entirely new way. Had we been unable to free it, it would have slowly decomposed and fallen. Over time, the decomposition would have revealed layers of its anatomy. I would have seen its flesh as feathers blew away, its skin, muscles, and eventually its small, hollow bones. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Instead, I became acquainted with the bird in a completely different way. We lived in that house for two more years, and every year the bird we rescued visited me. I would sit in a chair and put my feet up on the rail of our deck, and the bird would land on my shoe and sing to me. I don’t know for certain, but I think it recognized my voice.
We became friends. I knew the bird. I saw hints of its personality, and it sang songs to me. And the bird knew me! It recognize that I was safe to befriend, and visited me regularly.
Every year at about this time, I begin to be concerned that our “knowing” is preventing us from knowing. Those who have spent much time in the church have heard the same Christmas passages year after year. The same prophesies from Isaiah, the same to chapters of Matthew and Luke’s gospels. We know the story. We know the scriptures well.
When I learned that I was going to be a dad, I picked up the standard literature: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” I read all there was to know about caring for a newborn. And I was prepared. I was ready to change diapers, hold the newborn with proper head support, and I knew what to look for to assure the child was healthy. I call this “dad theory.” I knew had theoretical insight into what being a dad would mean.
I read and “knew” the contents of that book, much like we read and “know” the contents of scripture. The problem was, I had never actually changed a diaper. I had never mixed formula, or bathed a newborn, and I couldn’t remember ever actually holding a child younger than 18 months old. I had never been around newborns!
I had book knowledge, but no practical knowledge.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who could help. I learned as much by doing as I did by reading. Now, I was able to add practical wisdom to my theoretical wisdom.
We know the story of scripture. We have “Jesus theory” down. But some of our learning takes place by doing. What does it look like to love as Jesus loved and serve as Jesus served? What does it look like to worship with our bodies and our lives? When Jesus’ disciples followed him around, they literally walked in his footsteps. Their theoretical knowledge was practiced and embodied! Jesus was intentional about this, sending them without him to minister to neighborhoods and communities.
But there is also a third kind of knowledge, and it is gained through experience and love.
As I have watched my son grow, I have learned more and more about him. We long ago left diapers behind, and he can support his own head and feed himself. But now I get to know his person. His hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, desires, imagination, goals, and so on. And this is the greatest joy of all.
I now get to exercise my “dad-theory” – putting those parenting books to use. I get to exercise my embodied knowledge, wrestling with him, putting my hand on his shoulder, walking with him through difficulties, etc., and I get to know him personally.
The theoretical knowledge we acquire from books, like Scripture, is so very important. We can’t do the rest well without it. We can’t know Jesus well without it.
The practical knowledge is vital. It would do my son little good if I had the theory down, knew his desires, but never acted like a father to him. It would do us little good to know scripture well, understand the heart of Jesus, but never take on the role of disciple.
But the personal knowledge is the most sacred privilege of all. To know someone, walking alongside them as friend, and to share love between you. That is a special bond.
It is the bond a father or mother can share with their child.
And it is the kind of bond Jesus desires to share with us.
You know the Christmas story. Do you know the Christ?