so after all that waiting …?

We’ve been waiting our way through Advent this year.
We’ve been waiting for the light of hope and peace,
waiting for the light of joy and love—
waiting for Christmas.
And in the waiting, we’ve been defining
just what we might be waiting for—
trying to define very practically hope and peace, joy and love—
very commonly with everyday definitions.

And actually finding out in the process
that we experience some of what we await
in the common everydays of our waiting—
as if what we await most expectantly—
that for which we prepare ourselves
with the greatest anticipation and excitement,
writes itself into the unfolding of our days.
That may well be the most important thing I say today.
So let me repeat it!
I mean who would expect something
important this early in the sermon?!
What we await most expectantly—
that for which we prepare ourselves
with the greatest anticipation and excitement,
writes itself into the unfolding of our days.

And so here we are, the Sunday after Christmas.
FM101.9 is still actually playing Christmas music
(or was yesterday).
There’s an odd poignancy to it now
as we might listen to “Christmas Time Is Here,”
when Christmas has come and gone,
or “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”
and it didn’t happen, did it?
I mean it has to stick for it to count, right?
“I’ll be home for Christmas,”
and some of us were, and some of us are already back.

And the secular stories
of Christmas as family winter tradition,
of Santa Claus, and presents,
and the religious ones of presence—
all specific to one night, one day—
long expected, long anticipated—
come and gone.

And so after all that waiting,
all that anticipating,
all that excitement,
what have we got?
I mean it’s all settled now, right?
She either got that hippopotamus, or she didn’t.
He either got his crabs (that was a new one for me this year!)—
he either got his crabs, or he didn’t.
It was a holly, jolly Christmas, or it wasn’t.

And what have we got?
We have the story we keep telling.

Parents have shared their amazement
at how children will want to hear a favorite story over and over again—
whether it’s a completely made up, picture-book story,
or an actual, it-really-happened family story.
It’s reassuring to them.
The repetition and familiarity provide a level of comfort and security
even as they get caught up in the story line time and time again.
After all, the stories we hear and tell, over and over again,
shape us and our reality.
So I want to share with you again (for the third time now, maybe,
on the Sunday after Christmas?)
a story by Philip Gulley, a Quaker pastor and writer in Indiana.
His story is a lot longer than stories I would normally quote in a sermon,
but there’s an exception to most every rule, right? He writes:

I was born deep in the winter. Each birthday my father phones to recount the events surrounding my birth. Our sons are asleep in their bedroom under the eaves. My wife and I are sitting in front of the fireplace; she is doing her needlework and I am reading a mystery. The phone rings. I ease out of my chair, walk to the kitchen, pick up the phone and say, “Hello.”

It is my father. No “Hello.” No “How are you?” Just the same question each birthday: “Have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I tell him.

“Well, it was eight o’clock in the evening when your mother went into labor. I remember the time because Gunsmoke was just starting. There was a terrible snowstorm. We could barely see the neighbor’s house for the snow. We got in the car to drive to the hospital in the city. Our defroster didn’t work, and I couldn’t see through the windshield. I had to drive the whole twenty miles with my head out the window. It was so cold my face was frostbitten. I ran a red light and a policeman pulled me over and said he was going to give me a ticket. I told him to hurry up because my wife was going to have a baby. The policeman said, ‘Follow me!’ and he turned on his lights and siren and off we went, all the way to the hospital where you were born. Not everyone can say that. That makes you special.

When I was a child, my mother would tuck me into bed, kiss my forehead, then leave the room. My father would come in and sit at the foot of my bed and ask, “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I would tell him.

He would lean back, close his eyes, and conjure up that memory—the snow and the swirling red lights and the siren’s wail. I’ve hear that story nearly forty times and I never tire of it. Every year I wonder the same things: Will they make it in time? Will I be alright? Of course I will be, because here I am. But the way my father tells the story leaves the outcome in doubt and I never quite relax until the story concludes with me safely delivered.

In my teenage years, when my father and I were at odds, I would remember how he had suffered frostbite to bring me safely into the world … and my heart would soften. I was a skinny kid, the target of bullies. When beaten up and ridiculed, I would take comfort in the fact that I was ushered into this world with a police escort and they were not. It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story. He could not give me wealth or fame to ease my way, so he gave me that story and it provided a deep consolation.

My chief regret is that I am not able to offer my sons a similar story. Their births were routine, insofar as a child’s birth is ever routine. We had sufficient time to drive to the hospital. The roads were clear. The car ran smoothly. My wife was unruffled. The doctors and nurses were competent and our children were delivered with a minimum of pain. I didn’t feel a thing.

When my older son turned five years old, he asked me, “Daddy, what happened when I was born?” I didn’t want to tell him the truth—that as births go, his was unremarkable, with only one peculiarity. When he was due to emerge, I was in the hospital restroom reading a back issue of Reader’s Digest. “Drama in Real Life.” A man ran off the road and over a cliff, where he lay broken and dazed for three days before spelling out HELP with rocks and sticks. Spotted by an airplane, he was rescued and lived to share his dramatic story.

As I finished his harrowing tale, the nurse knocked on the door and said, “Your wife is having your baby. You better get out here.” So I came out and five minutes later, so did my son. That is the truth, though it isn’t the kind of story I want to tell my son. It is not the stuff of legend. So when he asked me what happened when he was born, I kissed his forehead and took my place at the foot of his bed.

“Yours was a very special birth,” I told him. “Quite miraculous. It was the middle of winter. It was snowing. We were sitting in the living room late in the evening. Your mother went into labor. We climbed into the car and made our way toward the hospital. The roads were terribly slick. As we were rounding a curve, we slid off the road and over a cliff, where our car came to rest at the bottom. We were dazed and bruised. Your mother was pinned in the wreckage and couldn’t move, but I could, just barely. I managed to climb out through a window and gather some sticks and rocks, which I used to spell out HELP. The next morning, an airplane, circling overhead, spotted us and we were rescued. We were rushed to the hospital where you were safely delivered. And that, son, is the story of your birth.”

He swelled with pride. He’d had no idea his beginnings were marked with such drama. “Tell me again,” he pleaded.

“Next year,” I told him. “You’ll have to wait until your next birthday.” I kissed him goodnight and went downstairs to sit in my chair. My wife was there.

“What were you and Spencer talking about?” Joan asked.

“I was telling him about the night he was born,” I answered.

“Did you mention how the nurse had to get you out of the restroom because you were reading that story in Reader’s Digest?”

“Indirectly,” I answered.

“I hope you haven’t put ideas in his head,” she said.

My wife is a straightforward woman who doesn’t always appreciate the advantage of story and drama. She doesn’t need to embellish her birth story. Her mother delivered her without assistance after the doctor had left for the day. With a birth like that, you don’t need to exaggerate. It’s miracle enough.

I went back upstairs to talk with Spencer. “I would prefer,” I told him, “that you not talk with your mother about the car wreck and your birth. The memory of it is more than she can bear.”

My birthday came a few weeks later. My parents invited us for Sunday dinner. We were seated in the dining room. I said to my father, “Tell me about my birth, about the policeman and the snow.”

“What policeman?” my mother asked. “What snow?”

“The policeman who escorted you and Dad to the hospital the night I was born. Remember? It was snowing and the defroster was broken and Dad got frostbite from driving twenty miles with his head out the window.”

Mom said, “It wasn’t snowing—it was unusually warm that day. And he wouldn’t take me to the hospital until Gunsmoke was over. It was his favorite show, you know. He almost named you Festus.”

I looked across the table at my father. He smiled, winked, and said nothing. It was all a story—no snow, no policeman, no frostbite, no siren, no swirling lights. But it was my story, true or not, and I was grateful for it. I did not have wealth or fame or muscles or good looks to ease my way into this world. But I did have my story. My father gave it to me. It was his gift to me, bestowed with love, and I treasure it.

Later that night I was sitting in our living room. The phone rang. It was my father. “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?” he asked.

“I don’t believe so,” I answered.

He spoke of blowing snow and running a red light and how he got frostbite. He told me about the policeman who pulled him over and the police escort with the swirling lights and the siren. “Not everyone gets a police escort,” he pointed out. “That makes you special.”

These are the stories passed from father to son. We have no wealth to bestow, no fame to offer. We have only these legends to remind our children that on the day they were born, the ordinary was suspended and the miracles flew thick
(Philip Gulley, “A Time to Be Born,”
in For Everything There Is a Season: Simple Musings on Living Well
[New: HarperCollins, 2001] 13-21).

Good story, isn’t it?
Here’s another:
many, many years ago, deep in the winter,
a husband and wife rode a donkey
through a freak blizzard in the middle east.
The woman was great with child
and was completely bundled up riding on the donkey,
but the father got frostbite
where the wind swirled through the opening in his hood
that he needed in order to see where they were going.

There was no room for them at the inn,
but the innkeeper escorted them through the howling wind
to a stable, and there, under a flashing, red “NO VACANCY” sign,
the mother gave birth to her baby boy without assistance
(or without the assistance of doctors—I’m sure Joseph helped!)
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

Overhead, a new star celebrated in bright glory,
and shepherds and the wise made their way to the stable
as angel chorus ran through the night.
And whenever and wherever this story was told,
in the suspension of the ordinary,
you knew that this one was special.
This baby boy, born in these circumstances,
miracles flying thick, was special.

And he was, wasn’t he? A long longed-for answer to prayer.
For through the years HELP had been spelled out—
written large in the broken lives of God’s daughters and God’s sons—
written large in the pain of the human condition
and the plight of the natural world—
a desperate plea from a world spinning out of control—
sliding off the way things were supposed to be—
sliding off the way God had envisioned.
HELP was spelled out amidst the wreckage of how things are.

But ushered into the world, in and through this baby boy,
was the possibility of transformation—
the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.
And mothers and fathers passed the story along to daughters and sons—
a story told with all the hope broken lives could rally—
with all the love that beings shaped in the image of God could muster—
a story told with every scrap of imagination
that human creativity could draw upon
when confronted with the divine.
All this to convey the absolute importance of this story—
the utter significance.

That’s the story we tell—
the story we keep telling—
the story that embraces us—intrigues us—
inspires us and defines us—
the story that as we tell it
shapes itself in our living.

Now amidst our common everyday definitions
of important Advent words,
we’ve also been asking what gets in the way
of the common, everyday experience of these words?
And so I do want to ask this morning,
what gets in the way of this story we tell?
Though I tell you today. It doesn’t matter.
Not that things don’t—don’t get in the way.
All kinds of things do.

But we believe in this story.
We believe in the strength of our yearning for this story.
We believe in the transformative power of this story.

And every time we hear this story—
this story of Jesus—this story of us,
we invest ourselves in it again.
We wonder the same things: will it all work out?
Will love overcome apathy? What about fear?
Will everything be alright?
For the way the story is told leaves the outcome in doubt,
and we never quite relax
until the story we keep telling,
concludes with all safely delivered.

And so, when we are at odds with God,
may we remember how God suffered to bring us safely into this world …
and may our hearts soften.
When we are beaten up and ridiculed by the circumstances of our lives,
may we take comfort in the fact
that we were ushered into this world with God’s blessing
and with God’s love. It’s a wonderful gift we have, this story.
Even with all that gets in the way,
it provides a deep consolation.
This is our story, and we are grateful for it.
We may not have the priorities of this world that lead to wealth and to power,
but we do have our story. God gave it to us,
and nothing and no one can take it away from us.
It is God’s good gift, bestowed with love, and we treasure it.

And so after all that waiting,
all that excitement,
all that long-expected, long-anticipated
so specific to one night, one day—
now come and gone—
amidst the poignancy,
what have we got?

We have these legends—these stories—
passed on from parents in the faith to children in the faith,
to remind us that on each day God is born,
even today—tomorrow—
each day this next week and this next year
until Advent and Christmas roll around again—
each day God is born,
the ordinary is suspended and the miracles fly thick.

Merry Christmas, again.
And thanks be to God. Amen.

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