The First Nativity

first BR0001We led the animals down the road, Judd holding the lead ropes to the horse and pony, and I with my bucket of grain for the sheep. The beam from the flashlight Judd held in his free hand lit the way through the darkness. At the bottom of the hill, we turned in to the pole shed area which had become the designated spot for our first nativity program.

The pole shed area boasted of nice round bales that were stored in the shed.  Those bales and the old shed would be the perfect area for our endeavor.   With a concrete slab near the fence and feeding troughs along the edge of the concrete, this area must have been Oscar’s winter feedlot when he farmed here.  The tall, long metal three- sided shed made good shelter, not only for the cattle, but also for hay and farming equipment.

The meadow was familiar territory to our animals for we had on occasion brought them down to graze  the rich Brome.  It was easy to lead them in through the gate and up to the shed.  They were probably thinking it was going to be an adventure in grazing.

The germ of an idea had grown into a plan, and that plan was being carried out by all of our Wellspring group. The beauty of community! Imagining together, working together, and supporting each other as we live out various aspects of God’s truth.   This is true worship.

Preparation was pretty simple. One of the mothers had found a pattern for cardboard angel wings and had made some simple white costumes. There would be a Mary and Joseph in bathrobes and shawls and a baby wrapped in a nice white blanket, with a few little shepherds to stand by the sheep.  The script was simple scripture from Luke, and the songs were carols that we all knew.

We tied the horses near the hay and coaxed the sheep near to the manger where a “shepherd” would guard them carefully.

Someone  had already hung a couple  lanterns and had built a fire in the fire pit close to the manger.  A soft flickering glow from the fire added to  the rustic scene.  As smoke wafted out into the small meadow, the nostalgic smells of campfires added to our anticipation.

Gathering around the fire, we  waited for everyone to arrive. Slowly the moms and dads, children and college students began to join us around the fire.

We were ready. Moms and Dads lifted the two and three-year-old angels up on the large bales where they perched (or sat) in expectation of the unfolding scene.
To begin, we distributed a simple white sheet with the verses we would read from Luke, interspersed with a few carols.  The first reader began: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .   .”

The second reader continued: “4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, . . . and when the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

Now we focused on the manger. Ah, the simple, the quiet, the holy. And we sang quietly, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

“All is calm, all is bright.”Yes the quiet and the calm surrounded us.

We continued through the rest of the story, the sheep and little shepherds standing guard over Mary, Joseph, and the babe in the manger.

At one point we were interrupted by one of the little angels protesting loudly, “Stop! Mommy, the horse is eating my hay bale!” We all giggled, someone repositioned the horse, and we continued with the next reader.

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.. . .  
 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying , “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Now was the angels’ time to sing their hearts out. “Angels we have heard on high . . . .”   I watched in amusement as one little angel  filled her lungs, and sang at the top of her pint sized voice, and I wondered  what God might have in store for this little angel. Today that litle angel, Leta, is a grown-up angelic singer and server in the kingdom of God with The Salvation Army. Just one story of so many of those little angels who are serving God as adults today.

We finished the evening with the rest of the passage, ending with verse 20: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

After putting out the fire in the pit, and gathering up the horses and sheep, we headed from the meadow to the road and back to the house for hot chocolate. And so we also”returned” glorifying and praising God for all we had seen and heard. Yes, this was an experience we wanted to replay in our memories for a long time.  Little did we realize the legacy we had begun.

The Germ of an Idea

By the second December on our Kansas farm, we had acquired two horses and a few sheep.  Many evenings in the dark, I would walk to the barn, fill the grain buckets, toss some hay, break the ice in the water tanks, and then stand and enjoy the scene that played out before me.  After the first general excitement of feeding time, the animals would settle down to contentedly nibbling at their hay.

In the quiet, I leaned against the gate to the barnyard and gazed at the scene before me. My mind went back to those unique celebrations we had experienced in California.  Polished programs drew thousands.  We would dress in our best, and with great anticipation enter the auditorium.    We were handed a program, ushered to our seats, and waited in excitement for the program to begin.  Two thousand people had gathered to observe this one-of-a-kind performance. At last the house lights were dimmed and the curtain rose.  We were enthralled with the talent and the props.  The message was nostalgic and we were “Christmased.”

I looked at the current scene around me.  The millions of stars above shone brilliantly in the dark winter sky, and below the white snow padded the rocks and ground with softness.  The quietness and the unpretentious atmosphere were reminders of that first Christmas.

No red carpet…just trails of manure and hay and dirt.  No dignitaries…just the residents of the stable.  No gold lined crib…just a hand-hewn wooden manger that the sheep and donkeys had been eating from.

Yet in the presence of these simple creatures the God of the universe was born.  Watching my horses and sheep chomp their hay, I had a feeling that the creatures that special night just went on with their business of eating and resting, continuing  in their calling, their “isness” of  being sheep, being goats, being horses (or camels as it may have been).

As I drank in the magic of that December evening, I thought of the reality I was so privileged to witness.  No pretense, no glare of spotlight, no loud parties or raucous laughter.  Reality, simplicity: this was the scene into which God had chosen to send His Son.

I was in the midst of something very real.  It had been a real woman, a real man, in a real stable, full of real animal smells, and unimpressed animal life surrounding them in that Bethlehem manger.  No one had been there to clean up the place, to set up the lights, to sterilize the manger.

And so began a dream.  It was a dream to share this simple experience with others so their imaginations might be bathed with the wonder of the entrance into the world of the Infant Savior.

Memories of the Farm by Michael Kizzee

When invited, along with many others, to write my memories of Well Spring farm on Kitten Creek Road, I found myself at a loss. How does one capture in words the way a piece of land has imprinted one’s spirit?  Thinking about the memories makes me want to return again, but  I fear the moment has passed and it wouldn’t be the same.

Never-the-less, I will try to share the impact this farm had upon me.

579787_10151184703522416_1036411355_nMy first visit to the farm came when Nancy and Judd were rebuilding the barn that was in disrepair. My girlfriend at the time, Alicia, (later my wife of 19 years) invited me to come to the farm to help.[i]  I spent the day, along with others, nailing slats on the entire west side of the barn, and had a wonderful time meeting new people from all around who had  heard about the project on the radio and stopped by to lend a hand[ii]This might have been my first introduction to Judd’s and Nancy Swihart’s land.


My next encounter was probably about 1998 when Nancy, my professor at Manhattan Christian College, invited me to play a part in a nativity pageant she had developed through the group Wellspring. Nancy knew I was an actor of sorts and thought it would be a good fit. It was a quaint and short little excerpt from the prophets and the Gospel of Luke. I spoke with Nancy afterward about how this could be a great outdoor production. Nancy shared that she had already had ideas on such a production but needed help in developing it. Nancy spoke to me about all her ideas and we, along with a few others, worked together with another professor, Dr. Wesley Paddock, who developed a script for us to use.[iii]  This pageant was to grow into what is now Bethlehem Revisited. I’ve been told it draws thousands these days.

I felt honored to play the role of the  resurrected Savior for a couple of years, directing the production one year, ascan0001s well. But, I can honestly say that playing the role of Jesus changed my life causing me to reflect upon my spirit and soul.  I  seemed to be filled with a grace outside of myself. The experience deeply  changed me.

The land itself, though, is what I remember the most. I found great delight in seeking solace in the cedar woods on the back side of the property. When I needed to escape, I would call Judd and Nancy and they would welcome me. Judd would meet me when I pulled up to the farm and help me gather wood that he had cut and stacked. He would offer a lantern or advice as to what might help my journey into the woods.

Nancy and Judd were  excited for people to venture in. They were like children excited to see what healing or goodness might come your way. They knew what God’s creation does for the spirit and soul of those who give themselves to it. They were true hosts of healing.

On a cold winter’s night I would trudge over the hillside with the sounds and chills of the whipping Kansas wind in my face. Then, as I entered the cedars, slowly the sound would begin to subside and the chill disappear as I trekked down the hill. The trail led to a lonely cabin where I would set a camp fire and be still and listen. There is where my heart stilled and I could be alone with God’s creation. There I could look within without the distractions of the world. There is where my tainted soul would truly be revealed. A place where I fell down so I could get back up.

I have many other memories of “silent retreats” and artists gathering together in cabins to share poetry, music, art and short stories.

I will always remember the peace this land left with me. I thank God that Nancy and Judd gave their land to the Lord to use in a way that has touched so many.


[i] This was “Nehemiah 95,” and will occupy a post later.

[ii] Most of these were students and others who had already built memories at parties or meetings in the barn.

[iii] At this time the pageant became a guided tour of small groups.  Dr. Paddock’s script was the forerunner of our current script.

Lessons in Lambing

The clock on my dresser told me that it was two am.  I reached for my old red bathrobe draped by the bed and sleepily made my way to the back door.  Stepping into my mud boots and warm jacket, I grabbed a flashlight and slipped out into the cool night air. With each step I took, I could feel my bathrobe softly wrap around my bare legs.

Turning sleep-hungry eyes toward the starlit sky I whispered, “So, God, what lesson am I learning…or supposed to learn…through this new adventure?”   Getting up every two hours should have some reward, I reasoned.  Maybe it will be twins…two prize ewes or grand champion rams.  I was confident God would reward those sleep deprived nights.

My Good Shepherd doesn’t always respond in a voice that I can discern with my earthly ears, but I know that he tenderly loves this slow-witted sheep of his and he works everything thing for good.  So, I continued expectantly through the chilly night making my way toward the dark barn.

Bear, our old black lab, now quite familiar with my vigilance was no longer shocked into wakefulness as I entered the barn. He simply blinked and thumped his tail against the straw bed in a doggy greeting as my light beam flashed across his face in search of the ewe.

There she stood, contentedly munching away at the pile of hay I had given her earlier.  This was not a hopeful sign…ewes in labor do not eat.  However, she was young, barely a year, so perhaps she was not aware of what ewes do when they are in labor.

I assumed my now familiar position on a bale of hay, trying not to disturb her from any labor pains which might be in progress.  The night noises enveloped me. I could hear the rest of the flock just outside the barn door as a ewe softly called her lamb back to her side.  One lone neighbor dog was barking in the distance.

My attention shifted back inside the barn where I listened to Josephine peacefully chewing her cud and Bear’s soft snoring. After fifteen minutes of watching a sheep getting nervous about being watched, I headed back to the house.

“I could have been sleeping.  This was a totally wasted trip,” I thought as I crawled back into my warm bed beside a peacefully sleeping husband.

Two weeks earlier Josephine, one of my precious lambs from the previous year, had begun a pregnancy prolapse.  So, I had made a quick call to the our faithful local vet, and then began the now familiar routine of catching the sheep, holding her while the doc sewed the birth canal shut, rubbing her face and trying to convince her this was for her own good.   I knew.

The year before I had rubbed her half-sister’s face as the same vet had given her a shot to ease her death.  She too had prolapsed, but we had not caught her until the entire uterus and lamb had been partially expelled along with part of her bowels.  It had been a tough experience for the ewe, for me, and even for the vet.  I did not want to see another ewe encounter the same agony.

Although he knew I needed no reminder, Doc Penner gave me off-handed instructions as he drove away.  “Keep an eye on her!  You’ve got to get those stitches out as soon as she goes into labor. . .”   He did not need to finish his warning: “ . . or you will lose the lamb and the ewe,” was the obvious conclusion.

And so began my careful monitoring of Josephine’s behavior.  To begin with, I built a pen for her in the barn.  Nice comfortable straw for bedding, fresh hay to eat, her own feed bucket, a pail of water.  Josephine had been one of my most optimistic, social, and energetic lambs.

In the large sheep pen, she was the one who always came running first to check for grain, or just a simple cheek rub which was reward enough.  Josephine’s social spirit led her now to be agonizingly aware of her solitary confinement, so thinking this could be a matter of hours, possibly days, I brought her mother into the barn to keep her company.

I had entered the project with enthusiasm.  But the days dragged on. . .and on. . . and on.  Every two to three hours became a routine that affected everything I did.  I would leave school (I was teaching full time at our local Christian college about twenty minutes from the farm) to go home and check the sheep.  I had to be close enough to the farm that I could always be available.

And those nights!  I had asked God to wake me so I would not have to set an alarm and wake Judd.  God was faithful, so I always tried to be obedient and respectful of His faithfulness.  I had it down to a science.  Look at the clock; sit up quietly; carefully put the blankets back so Judd would stay warm; tip-toe out of the room.  I was learning plenty. This whole routine of waking, of getting out of bed, of consideration for my husband, was teaching me self-discipline, faith, and obedience.

Three weeks after we began our labor watch, Josephine began to “push.’  This is it!  I thought excitedly. Now we will see what it is you are carrying in that large tummy.  So I intruded into her life, catching her, holding her down, pulling out the stitches.  Offended by my actions, she retreated from me, not understanding in the least my verbal explanation of what I was doing and why.

But…nothing happened, except another prolapse, another embarrassed call to the vet, another escapade of catching, holding, sewing.

It would be another two weeks before my grown-up Josephine became a mother.  Two more weeks of waking, or of driving home from school, sitting quietly on my bale of hay.

Finally, she delivered a nice little ewe lamb.  Not twins, nothing spectacular, but a sweet ewe lamb. And Josephine was a good mother, and a sweet sister.  Her twin sister who had lost a lamb a few weeks earlier desperately wanted to be a mother, so Josephine graciously shared her one lamb.

The three of them ran around in the barnyard together, both moms watching out for their precious charge.  A threesome!  That new little lamb not only had me, her shepherdess, but constant care from two mothers.

Looking back these many years later, I have fond memories.  Yes, my threesome was much fun to observe out in the corral.  But it was much more than that. The many starlit nights of quiet worship as I walked to the barn, the trips home to a quiet, peaceful farm, the knowledge that I had a God who cared about this sheep of His and yet also cared for my sheep, a God who would faithfully walk with me through this experience, waking me from my both literal and metaphorical sleep, to see His hand mysteriously working in this otherwise mundane existence of the “land of the living.”