Happy Advent

Bill Nieporte is a friend from my seminary days, and currently the pastor of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This week, he is toying with the idea of creating a “John the Baptist” line of Christmas cards.  So far, here is what he has produced:

Outside card: “From Our House To Yours This Holiday Season…”

Inside: “Merry Christmas you brood of vipers.”

Outside card: “Let’s all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log…”

Inside: …which burns like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity…With Love, John”

Outside card: “Season’s greeting to you from across the miles…”

Inside: “Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This is, of course, straight out of scripture, but not so very Christmas sounding.  John’s words change our focus.  If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.   If Christmas is about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming to us.  If Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and open to the weak and vulnerable among us, is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.  If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, John reminds us that our joining the cosmic and timeless celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses, and seeking healing for our wounds.

Christmas can be a confusing time for many folks for a variety of reasons.  In the midst of difficult economic times, money for presents will be limited for many.  If the focus of Christmas is buying, then, no doubt, there will be some who are feeling like they have not had much of a Christmas. If Christmas is about family, and a family member is ill, away from home, deployed overseas, or has passed away, Christmas will be different at best and impossible at worst.

What John does for us during this advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is on our list of things to do in order to get ready for Christmas.  With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationships with God and the ways those relationships impact how we live our lives.  For, you see, if Christmas is to happen, this time it will not happen in a far-away, long-ago stable.  No, if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of women and men, boys and girls who are ready to invite and embrace the birth of a new experience of the reality of God in their lives.  December 25th will appear on the calendar in just a few more days.  Christmas will come. What John wants to know is whether or not Christmas will happen in you?  Are you getting ready?

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Will the Syrophoenician Woman be Covered?

She is a desperate woman. Her daughter is gripped by the power of a demon greater than all of the available remedies. She has exhausted them all. To be certain, she has tried everything that she knows to do. Neither the advice of friends nor the wisdom of those who often times know what to do in cases of sickness and injury provides any relief. She is a desperate woman.

So desperate that she forgets her place. Without regard for race, creed or ethnicity, she moves out to find help for her daughter. She is blind to any customs, mores or values that would deny relief to her tormented child. What is or is not socially acceptable means nothing to her so long as her little girl is hurting. What has always been, and even what she has always held to be true, is secondary now to finding someone who can ease her child’s pain.

She is hearing stories of a man who does such things. He is a Jew from down south. Why he finds himself in her town she knows not nor cares. The reports of His deeds seem incredible, too much to believe. Something in the stories ring true. Her hope is gaining momentum. Her desperation has a direction, but it is no longer simply desperation that drives her. No, her desperation has turned to determination as she becomes convinced that this itinerant miracle worker is the answer that she is longing for.

She falls down at His feet when she finds him and begs him to heal her daughter. Now her daughter will be made well, so confident is she in this man’s power and compassion.

But it is not happening. He is refusing. Rather adamantly he tells her that his power is not for people like her. His mission is elsewhere. He is in her town to rest, not to heal the sick. He will not do for her before he has done for those that he was sent to do for. The children must eat before the dogs are fed.

She has no time to be insulted. What she does have is a certainty that it is within this man to heal her daughter. Yet, it is more than that. She sees in him what others do not see. Not his most adamant opponents, nor his closest followers, have yet seen what she sees with absolute clarity. One wonders if even he sees what she sees, that he is for everyone.

With such certainty, she moves through clouds of desperation gripped by a mother’s determination, refusing to be denied His healing power. With great clarity and not a little cleverness, she reminds Him that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table. What can he say? She has spoken a timeless truth. If there is a dog in the house, there will be no food left on the floor.

For seeing what she sees, and saying what she says, her daughter is made whole again. The demon leaves her daughter.

Does this encounter mark a change in mission for Jesus, a broadening of the focus of His life and ministry? Does it in any way affirm His assertion that “. . . God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish?”

What is it about this mother that moves Jesus to move beyond His initial reluctance to healing her daughter? Was it her determination or her desperation? The story as it is told in Mark’s gospel would seem to indicate that it is the wisdom of her reply that won Jesus over. “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Whatever the limitations or restrictions that Jesus understands to apply to the range and scope of his ministry get obliterated in this encounter. Compassion trumps gender, religion and ethnicity. With Jesus, compassion always overrides whatever would withhold treatment, deny care or hoard mercy. She is persistent and he is compassionate. As followers of Christ, we are called to both that kind of compassion and that sort of persistence.

Breathe

Saturday morning started with a telephone call from my son. He told me that his grandmother, my mother, was unresponsive and in the emergency room at UT Hospital. The details were few. All we knew at that point was that mom was on a ventilator. I quickly dressed and headed to the hospital.

Leaving the house, I knew that day was going to be long, different and potentially very sad. As I passed the first McDonalds on the way to the hospital the thought occurred to me that I ought to get something to eat. The drive-thru lane at the next one was way too long so I decided to park and go inside. The line inside was longer than I wanted to wait for as well. Turning to leave, my cell phone rang. It was my Uncle John in Texas. This would be the first of many conversations with him on this day. I told him what I knew oblivious to those around me. “She is in the emergency room at UT. I don’t know much, I have not talked to a doctor yet.” The call ended and I heard a man behind me speaking. He had heard my conversation and wanted me to take his place at the front of the line. That seemed strange to me. Something really bad must be happening in your life, if people in McDonalds offer to let you go in front of them. I accepted the offer still not unaware of just how different this day would be.

At the hospital, my sister and I listened to doctor tell us about mom. Mom had always told us that she did not want to be put on a ventilator. My sister was especially bothered that this had already happened. The doctor explained that she had no reason not to do it as there was nothing in mom’s paperwork to indicate her wishes. The doctor then explained that the ventilator was medically necessary as mom could not breathe without it.

Sister and I talked and decided that since mom was already on the ventilator, we ought to see how mom responds to the treatment before we made a decision about whether or not to remove the ventilator.

As the day wore on, nothing seemed to be improving. Doctors and nurses alike were kind, considerate and honest. Their words gave us very little encouragement about mom’s condition. When a person is on a ventilator sedation is required to keep the person from panicking and struggling against it. Mom needed that sedation in the morning. By lunchtime, she no longer required it. She was in effect sedating herself. This was not a good sign.

Sometime in the afternoon they moved mom from the emergency room to a critical care unit. Her condition did not seem to improve. The day was moving on and we had the lingering thought all the while that that we were not doing what mom had told us to do.

Meanwhile, sister’s friends from high school and college started to show up at the hospital. Steve and Brian had been at the hospital most of the day, but now other people from church were sitting in the critical care unit waiting room. Why are all these people here I wondered. They were there to support and love my sister and myself during a very difficult time. Seeing all those people made what was happening real.

Late Saturday evening, my sister and I told the nurse to remove the ventilator. We made it clear that we wanted all treatment to continue. We just did not want mom on a ventilator any longer. We did this not as an act of faith in God, but as act of obedience to mom. It was what she wanted.

After we made the request, I realized my time with my mother was now potentially measured in minutes. No one had given mom much chance of breathing without the ventilator. When the person from respiratory came and removed it, mom would in all likelihood no longer be breathing.

She did breathe though. She breathed through that night and every night since then. Still, she is sick and she has a long recovery in front of her.

After mom had started breathing on her own, I went back to the waiting room. I had long ago lost track of time, but it must have around midnight or later. There in the waiting room were eight or ten folks from Ball Camp Baptist Church. Church! Thank you.

The Reality of Hope

Coming to terms with reality is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes the reality that is before us is such that we would rather avoid it than come to terms with it. Confronting it is uncomfortable and distressing. When we think about it, we are frightened and sad.

Coming to terms with reality sounds like a good thing to do. The very notion of doing so seems to imply maturity. When we come to terms with the situations that arise in our lives we demonstrate our maturity and our ability to cope. I suppose coming to terms with reality is a good thing.

However, I do have some reservations. The reality that I am confronting is my mother’s cancer. The doctor did call it that this week. Before, he had hinted at it, saying it without really saying. This week, he said it. He said that he is as sure as he can be that mom has cancer. I am sure that he is as sure as he can be.

Nonetheless, I still have reservations about confronting this reality. Confronting may not be the best word. I have some reservations about accepting this reality. Hope keeps me from too quickly giving in to this reality. In a way, hope is something of an occupational hazard for me. I am hopeful because I have seen people with cancer receive treatment and respond to it positively. I have seen people who were in bad shape rebound and recover. One day a man lying in the hospital bed barely appeared to be alive. The next day he is sitting up, getting up and talking. No one expected that to happen, but it did. Having seen that sort thing happen through the years on more than one occasion causes hope to take hold. Maybe there are medical reasons for such things happening, but I have seen doctors and nurses marvel at the mystery of an unexpected recovery.

Hope is the nobler reason for my unwillingness to accept this reality. My other reason is less rational. I am thinking this is too soon. There are other things, events and moments that she needs to experience. The image of my grandmother holding our boys in her arms is one that I treasure. That is an image I want for them to have with their grandmother. It is too soon for that to happen. There are still other images that I want for them to create with their grandmother and times that I want for them to have with her, more times that I want to have with my mom. It is too soon.

It is too soon, as if there is somewhere out there a point in time that would not be too soon. The time comes when it comes and we are never ready for it. No matter how prepared we may think we are we are not ready for it. We are not ready because we just cannot get ready to lose, to be without that which we have not lost nor been without in such a permanent way. We do not get ready for such a parting as much as we learn after the fact how the one we have lost remains with us still. Gone to be sure, but present with us as a result having spent a lifetime of giving herself to us, and pouring out her energy, effort and love on our behalf. Still, it is too soon.

It is too soon, because at least for today, the time has not yet come. Today, hope prevails. Reality, any reality, without hope is bleak indeed. We are blessed if we know the one who gives to us a hope that can penetrate any reality no matter how desperate that reality may be. Hoping with that kind of hope is not denying reality. This is true because that hope was brought into the world on the darkest of days under the bleakest of circumstances. That hope was brought to us on a cross and offered to us with the rolling away of a stone that revealed to us an empty tomb.

We are invited to embrace this hope, by denying ourselves, taking up our own instrument of death and following Christ, the one who is our hope. Being hopeful is not denying reality. Hope does not cause us to deny or even avoid the pain and suffering of this life. Hope does see us through such suffering and greets us on the other side.