To believe

This message was given at the Christmas service at the hospital where I am chaplain on the Thursday and Friday before Christmas.

Recently, I have been reading a book by Jewish theologian Carol Ochs. In this book she writes about the idea that we all learn much about God from the threads and meanderings of our life stories. I think her point is true. Many who come into this building day in and day out enter in fear and apprehension, and leave feeling like people really cared for them and that they have a new chance at living life.

In several traditions, worshipers prepare to make pilgrimages throughout their lives to holy places. From the time they are small children they plan their lives around this pilgrimage, this experience. Though they may have other concerns throughout life, the thought of making such a trip fills their thoughts and life. It is in this preparation that they come to understand that their lives have a deeper and greater purpose. It is in this preparation that they and their children feel the intervention of God into the world.

Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, Chanukah or the Festival of Lights, we are reminded of the miracle of God’s presence. Powerful king Antiochus Epiphanes sent out 40,000 of his soldiers to destroy the Jewish people, the Maccabees. The Maccabees, willing to lose their lives to preserve themselves and their Temple, won a mighty battle against Antiochus’ armies. After retaking the Temple in Jerusalem and fashioning a new altar, the Maccabees made a new Menorah. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil for one night – and only one night. But, the second night, beyond comprehension, they were able to light the candle again… and again the next night…and the following night – until eight nights were past – a miracle! And so it was that the Festival of Lights was born. It was a reminder that God was with His People. In Chanukah, God breaks in through history, when life is hard, when it is troubling, when His people need a sign, and He gives them just what they need. He reminds them that He has not forsaken them.

In the Nativity Story, there appears in the most unexpected of places the Son of God. He adorns, of all places a manger. It’s with a brilliant light that the angel announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds. Marcilio Ficino spoke of the bright star that stood out over Bethlehem as an angel so consumed by the need to direct the Magi to the place of Jesus’ birth, that the angel forcibly coalesced itself into the form of a bright star. The name of the child born that day is “Immanuel” or “God with us.” God breaks through the human story in the most unanticipated way to show us that He is present and cares. The Christ Child, the Son of God, draws the attention of kings, shepherds, carpenters - every kind, and class, and gender of person there is - to worship.

So in our own lives, we have experienced moments where God has broken into our story - taking the rawness of everyday humanity, with its doubts, confusions and fears - and making them the curriculum of healing, growth and change. And, as it did so many years ago, God’s ability to make our brokenness an experience of utter wonder, healing, and surprise brings forth the only response that it can – worship and amazement. So often, those transformational experiences arise from two sources: Occasions and Others.

There have been many experiences that have utterly changed me, as I’m sure there have been that have changed you. The birth of a child forever changes us. Changes that occur in our families alter us in ways that may shake us to our very core. Some of those changes remind us that God is with us. Others cause us to wonder where God is? Hardly a day goes by that some patient doesn’t tearfully speak of God’s faithfulness to them in the past and their trust in Him for the procedure that day. Hardly a day goes by that a patient doesn’t confess their wonder about God’s caring for them. The very act of wondering where God is in their situation says that they believe but they’re just trying to make sense of their confusion.

Many of us learned about comfort and nurture from a mom who put Vick’s Vap-O-Rub on our chest when we had a cold. We learned that even a hard and cold dad, who seemed far away from us, would have moments when he would find some place in his heart for fathering and would take us to the zoo and buy us popcorn. We learned awe and wonder when we saw a shooting star in a winter’s cold in the midst of a deeply dark night. We learned that there were things that were ever so much bigger than us when we saw Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Mentally, I collapsed in amazement the first time I saw our Electrophysiology Labs do a cardiac ablation. I still get tears in my eyes when I see the folks in our Cath Lab open up a patient’s clogged vessels and bring relief to him or her.

And then there are the people, the Others that I spoke of, who make a difference in our lives, who speak to us of realities greater than ourselves. I had spent twelve years in hospice and was perfectly prepared to spend the rest of my career working there. When I came here, it felt like a humongous risk. But, there were moments that said, “You’re in the right place, Mike.” One of those moments was when I saw one of our techs place his hands gently on a patient’s shoulders and reassure the patient prior to his surgery. So many other individuals in my life have taught me about God, have brought me to a personal manger where I found myself worshipping. One is my son. One is my wife. My parents and their sacrifices made my work, life and ministry possible. There are many, many others, some of whom were a direct cause for my presence here today as a chaplain. I wonder who it is in your life that taught you about God, about grace, about love, about goodness? Can you thank them now, as you, yourself kneel in a spiritual sense, at the brink of Christmas?

During this time of year, it’s easy to confuse the symbols for the meaning. We’re tempted to abandon the symbols. I think that would be a mistake. The call is to use the symbols of this Season as an arrow to Heaven, as the Star of Bethlehem as it were, to give thanks and gratitude for all that we have been given.

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