An Advent Paradox: A Baby Sleeps But God Does Not

God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Unexpected God, 
your advent alarms us. 
Wake us from drowsy worship, 
from the sleep that neglects love, 
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. 
Awaken us now to your coming, 
and bend our angers into your peace. 
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

During Advent there are times when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle bedtime story of that silent night, the infant napping away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.   All is calm.  All is bright.

I’m dozing if I think that is all there was to it.

The reality is God Himself never sleeps.

This is no gentle bedtime story: a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver.
This is no gentle bedtime story: the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets.
This is no gentle bedtime story: Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered.
This is no gentle bedtime story:  a family’s flight to Egypt, immigrants seeking asylum,  fleeing that fate for their only Son.
This is no gentle bedtime story:   the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry:  itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days,  owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples,  sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured, hung on a cross until he gave up his spirit.

Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth as a helpless infant to be sacrificed, to die and rise again, to return again as King of all nations.  No signal flares needed.

When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who can never save oneself.   We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on.  It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the wrath of God who is not dead and never sleeps.

This bedtime story is not for the faint of heart — we are “sore afraid” and should “bend our anger” into His peace.

And not forget our crash helmets.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God’s grace our warring world
shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.
Words: Carl P. Daw, Jr.

Here is the Mystery

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Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw on to itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T. Wright from The Crown and the Fire

 

 

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Inundated by overwhelmingly bad news of the world,
blasted 24/7 from cable TV,
highlighted in rapidly changing headlines online,
tweeted real time to our pocket phones from every nook and cranny~

We cling to the mystery of His magnetism for our weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls our evil onto Himself and out of us.
Hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness
disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty,
the dusty corners of our hearts vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret, the mystery revealed:

He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives.
Instead, once we are safely within His depths, He washes us forever clean.

 

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We Who Are In Doubt

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so far behind the others
in their neat little v, in their
competence of plans and wings, if
you didn’t listen you would think
it was a cry for help
or sympathy?
friends! friends!?
but it isn’t.
 
Silence of the turtle on its back in the street.
Silence of the polar bear pulling its wounded weight onto the ice.
Silence of the antelope with a broken leg.
Silence of the old dog asking for no further explanation.
 
How
was it I believed I was
God’s favorite creature? I,
who carry my feathery skeleton across the sky now, calling
out for all of us. I, who am doubt now, with a song.
~Laura Kasischke, “the call of the one duck flying south” from Space in Chains

 

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We instinctively tend to limit for whom we exert ourselves.
We do it for people like us, and for people whom we like.

Jesus will have none of that.

By depicting a Samaritan helping a Jew,
Jesus could not have found a more forceful way to say
that anyone at all in need –
regardless of race, politics, class, and religion –
is your neighbor.

Not everyone is your brother or sister in faith,
but everyone is your neighbor,
and you must love your neighbor.
~Tim Keller from Generous Justice

 

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I should know better than to think: 

because millions of lives were lost, a war was fought and won against white supremacists only seventy years ago, stopping the annihilation of a group of people executed due to their faith

–that the hatred between people of varying cultural, ethnic and faith backgrounds would cease.

 

I should know better than to think:

because blood was shed from bodies black and white in a war fought and won only 150 years ago stopping the “right” to own other people as property

–that somehow the inequality, disagreement and disparity among the diverse peoples of this country would be resolved.

 

I should know better than to think:

human beings surely must learn from their own checkered, bloody and horrific history of bigotry, racism and bias

–yet by our self-imposed blindness to what has transpired before, we doom ourselves to repeat history over and over again.

 

I should know better than to think:

freedom of speech and freedom to assemble can be exercised peaceably and without arms

–yet rallies, demonstrations and marches become killing fields and motor vehicles used as deadly weapons.

 

I should know better than to think:

college campuses are laboratories for debate and discourse, dissecting the mistakes of the past, plotting a course for a hopeful, more inclusive and better future, learning and stretching through the discomfort when one’s beliefs are challenged and tested

–yet tolerance for differences has transformed into an academic intolerance for differing points of view.

 

I should know better than to think:

we the people, all colors, all faiths, all backgrounds, are in this together, united as we move forward through the storms of history, the turmoil of the present and the unknowns of the future

–yet there are still those who shout loudest, reinforce walls to create distance, purposely intimidate and hurt neighbors rather than offer them a helping hand.

 

We are a seriously wounded and anguished people,
each of us having tried flying solo,
believing we are in the right and somehow favored.

Instead we have faltered and fallen.

We now lie bleeding alongside the road, as did the Samaritan,
dependent on someone,
the “other”,
to reach out in compassion
knowing we bleed the same blood.

We who doubt,
must no longer doubt the truth of who and what we are.

We bleed together.

 

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To Accept the Warming Rays of the Sun

 

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world;
he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.
Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry.
There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger.
But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion,
their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.

I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad:
and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer
if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle,
to accept the warming rays of the sun,
and to report them, whenever,
and if ever, they happen to strike me.

~E.B. White (on writing)

 

 

It becomes tiresome always feeling angry about what it is happening in the world,
to read and write nothing but words of frustration,
to rail against the meanness that surrounds us,
to push back the bully and seek a balance of perspective and insight.
When I need to feel something other than mad,
I walk as far as I can go,
look up, revel in the light and bask in its warmth.
I seek to accept what the sun has to offer
and tell about it
and my anger drains away,
flushed down a pipe
never to be seen again.

 

A Flower That Smiles Back

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Nobody can keep on being angry if she looks into the heart of a pansy for a little while.
~L.M. Montgomery

 

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The world is in sore need of a cure for the grumbles. Just glance (just glance, don’t dwell!) at the headlines.

Fortunately, the cure exists right outside in our back yards, along sidewalks and in vacant lots. A cheerful face is irresistible to all but the crabbiest among us, guaranteed to bring a smile every time.

Beyond the pansy’s obvious superficial charm exists a depth of heart — roots able to thrive in the thinnest of soil, at home among rocks and weeds,  resilient even when tromped on.

We carry its seeds on the tread of our boots in spite of our grumbling and help spread the good news: anger left unfed will dry up and blow away.

And we’re thankful the constant heart of the pansy lasts in all its diversity, generation after generation.  Thriving in some of the toughest, sparest, and most unforgiving places, it still, and always, smiles back.

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Doc Season

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It may not be rabbit season or duck season but it definitely seems to be doc season, especially as the next version of the American Health Care Act is unveiled today. This (and the Affordable Care Act which preceded it) is not about patients — it is about how to keep doctors and the health care industry under reasonable cost control and maintain some semblance of quality service.

Physicians are lined up squarely in the gun sights of the media, government agencies and legislators, as well as our employers and coworkers, not to mention our own professional organizations, our Board Certifying bodies, and our dissatisfied patients, all happily acquiring hunting licenses in order to trade off taking aim. It’s not enough any more to wear a bullet proof white coat. It’s driving doctors to hang up their stethoscope much earlier than they expected just to get out of the line of fire. Depending on who is expressing an opinion, doctors are seen as overcompensated, demanding, whiny, too uncommitted, too over-committed, uncaring, egotistical, close-minded, inflexible, and especially, and most annoyingly – perpetually late.

One of the most frequent complaints expressed about doctors is their lack of sensitivity to the demands of their patients’ schedule. Doctors do run late and patients wait. And wait. And wait some more. Patients get angry while waiting and this is reflected in patient (dis)satisfaction surveys which are becoming one of the tools the industry uses to judge the quality of a physician’s work and character as well as their salary compensation.  It is considered basic Customer Service 101.

I admit I’m one of those late doctors. I don’t share the reasons why I’m late with my patients as I enter the exam room apologizing for my tardiness. Taking time to explain takes time away from the task at hand: taking care of the person sitting or lying in front of me. At that moment, they are the most important person in the world to me. More important than the six waiting to see me, more important than the several dozen emails and calls waiting to be returned, more important than the fact I missed lunch or need to go to the bathroom, more important even than the text message from my daughter from school or the worry I carry about my dying mother.

I’m a salaried doctor, just like more and more of my primary care colleagues these days, providing more patient care with fewer resources. I don’t earn more by seeing more patients. There is a work load that I’m expected to carry and my day doesn’t end until that work is done. Some days are typically a four patient an hour schedule, but most days my colleagues and I must work in extra patients triaged to us by careful nurse screeners, and there are only so many minutes that can be squeezed out of an hour so patients end up feeling the pinch. I really want to try to go over the list of concerns some patients bring in so they don’t need to return to clinic for another appointment, and I really do try to deal with the inevitable “oh, by the way” question when my hand is on the door knob. Anytime that happens, I run later in my schedule, but I see it as my mission to provide essential caring for the “most important person in the world” at that moment.

The patient who is angry about waiting for me to arrive in the exam room can’t know that I’m late because the previous patient just found out that her upset stomach was caused by an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps they might be more understanding if they knew that an earlier patient came in with severe self injury so deep it required repair. Or the woman with a week of cough and new rib pain with a deep breath that could be a simple viral infection is showing signs of a pulmonary embolism caused by oral contraceptives. Or the man with blood on the toilet paper after a bowel movement finding out he has sexually transmitted anal warts when he’s never disclosed he has sex with other men, or the woman with bloating whose examination reveals an ominous ovarian mass, or finding incidental needle tracks on arms during an evaluation for itchiness, which leads to a suspicion of undiagnosed chronic hepatitis.

Doctors running late are not being inconsiderate, selfish or insensitive to their patients’ needs. Quite the opposite. We strive to make our patients feel respected, listened to and cared for. Most days it is a challenge to do that well and stay on time. For those who say we are being greedy, so we need to see fewer patients, I respond that health care reform and salaried employment demands we see more patients in less time, not fewer patients in more time. The waiting will only get longer as more doctors hang up their stethoscopes rather than become a target of anger and resentment as every day becomes “doctor season.”

Patients need to bring a book or catch up on correspondence,  bring knitting, schedule for the first appointment of the day. They also need to bring along a dose of charitable grace when they see how crowded the waiting room is. It might help to know you are not alone in your worry and misery.

But your doctor and health care team is very alone, scrambling to do the very best healing they can in the time available.

I’m not hanging my stethoscope up anytime soon though some days I’m so weary by the end, I’m not sure my brain between the ear tips is still functioning. I don’t wear a bullet proof white coat since I refuse to be defensive. If it really is doctor season, I’ll just continue on apologizing as I walk into each exam room, my focus directed to the needs of the “most important person in the whole world.”

And that human being deserves every minute I can give them.

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When the Storm Passes

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This has been a wild weather month on the outside:

heavy winds at times, damaging hale storms, snowfall covering the foothills, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud.

And inside my cranium:

words that flew out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire.

The unpredictable month of May needs no explanation for acting like October, December and August within a span of a few hours.  I am not so easily forgiven or unburdened.  I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storm blows over.

But in the midst of all the extremes, while the storm is raging, a miracle takes place:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.

God cries too.  His wept tears have lit up the sky in a promise of forgiveness.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.

He assures us because He knows we need it.

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