As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left. I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group. She has pancreatic cancer. Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service. It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.
At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer. The weight of her burden is great. Who knows what the cancer has done to her body? She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her. Her only hope is prayer. While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her. In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God. If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.
After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her. Will she suffer? How much will she suffer? Will a miracle happen? How will it be between her and God?
Disease has a way of focusing our attention. It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked. We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing. Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God. For some people, the effect is the opposite. For them, there is anger and resentment toward God. Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.
Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition. We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us. A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God. However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.
Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living. In essence, we asked God to be with us. That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.” We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.
Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us. As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God? Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us? When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree. What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God? The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging. God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome. In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.
What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God? Whatever that is, that is what we need less of. If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments. If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.
This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world. The proposal is quite simple. Start small by spending less. Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus. It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.