Wow!  It has been a long time since I’ve written — not because there have been no salvation stories, but perhaps because there have been so many of them.  Salvation Stories beginning, unfolding, confusing, challenging, terrifying, encouraging, emerging, disentangling, releasing, unravelling, confounding, baffling, arousing, exacting, imposing, heartbreaking, and continuing  . . . .

If I used a thesaurus I could find more synonyms for the language of salvation stories, but I suspect you can identify with at least one word in the list above.  I know these past few months of being immersed in salvation stories has been thrilling, disappointing, exhausting, breathtaking (literally), overwhelming, upsetting, depressing, exciting, bewildering, relieving, amazing, devastating, heartbreaking, and continuing . . . .

And then comes December 1 — the month of Advent — when everything is decorated with brights lights and smiling Santas, and my children (though adults) send me their “wish lists” just in case I am wondering what to get them for Christmas, and  I buy Christmas cards (again), fully intending to send them (again).

Today, in fact, is the first Sunday of Advent.  We tend to think of Advent as the season for the beginning of the salvation story — of a pregnant teenage mom who travelled on a donkey with her confused fiancé to pay taxes with money they didn’t have to a reckless, heartbreaking government. They ended up with no reservations, and  no vacancies, and so this baby was born to homeless teenagers with no health care in a barn, with a cradle that smelled like the animals and with stars twinkling through the cracks in the ceiling.  I’ve experienced bits and pieces of that story this year.  I suspect you have too.

And then half-drunken shepards come — just as this exhausted couple is getting their baby to sleep– to announce that this baby has been born to be with us to redeem all of our stories – to rescue us.  Talk about a story that is confusing, breathtaking, exciting, bewildering, relieving, continuing . . . . like bits and pieces of all our stories.

Advent is not built around shopping and wrapping presents and kissing Santa under the mistletoe.  It is built around the petition, “save us from the time of trial . . . and faced with this prospect [of a coming Savior], the children of God cling not to their own strength, but place their confidence fully in the One who comes to save”  (Malachi 3:1).

Just typing that sentence I breathed a sigh of relief.   The Advent story is about the salvation baby born in a dirty, smelly stable with stars twinkling through the cracks in the ceiling.  A baby named Emmanuel, which means God with us.  A baby born to  be with us so that He could rescue us.

GOD . . . WITH US.  I forget that sometimes when I’m in the midst of the story that most of us live.  My favorite poet and memoirist, Mary Carr, describes the human story:

The most privileged, comfortable person . . . from the best family, has already suffered
the torments of the damned.  I don’t think any of us get off this planet without
suffering enormously.  And one of the chief ways we suffer is by loving people who
are incredibly limited by the fact that they’re human beings, and they’re going to
disappoint us and break out hearts. . . We are all heartbroken. 

Sometimes I have trouble believing God is with us when I am heartbroken by stories of sexual slavery happening here, in the suburbs – with us; by stories of long-term marriages ripped apart by us; by stories of girls without mothers and boys without fathers who sit by us in the pews of our churches; by stories of lonely men and women who work, go to church, or volunteer for the After Prom committee with us — but have no reservations for this holiday season.  Mostly, I forget that a rescuing God is with us when we or those we love struggle with painful, heartbreaking, continuing trials of disease, addiction, or other chronic suffering.

I’m not good at remembering God with us, because I get lost in these human stories — in my own story.  Just a few weeks ago I was hospitalized because my body was not absorbing any of my thyroid medication.  This had probably been going on for months; and the fatigue, shortness of breath, mood swings, etc. crept up on me until I felt like I could barely survive another day of listening to stories and living in my own story.   I guess I was like the frog in the story who is placed in a pan of water, and as someone turns the heat up, the frog slowly boils to death without recognizing the heat and urgent need to jump to salvation.  I think I heard this gruesome story in youth group a few times as a cautionary tale to recognize worldly temptations and jump to safety before I boiled to death.  I”m not sure it was a good story to keep me from sneaking into temptation occasionally as a teenager, but it is an appropriate story for me right now.  The problem is, I don’t know when or how to jump.  I’ve never boiled to death . . . but I’ve come close.

Wow!  That kind of seems like a crazy story to include in a blog about Advent, but it’s true — I get immersed in all of the adjectives of my story and the stories of those I love and I can’t find God with us.

Thank God, He finds us – usually through bits of light twinkling through the cracks of our lives.

My gifts of light so far this Advent season have been:

**A dear friend whose life demonstrates the words of that old hymn . . . “then sings my soul, my Savior God — to thee.  How great thou art!  How great thou art!”  She not only sings, but she pesters me to walk, to take care of myself, to check with my doctor about the symptoms that show up when I’m living in boiling water.  Sharla, is a twinkling star that will not go away and reminds me that one of the best gifts we can give  is faithfulness.  God with us.**  “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not [boiled to death] . . . great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

**This morning I awoke to snow.  Snow!  In Colorado you would think that is not so uncommon in December, but we have been in a drought, and even if it is just a few inches — it is a reminder of a thousand mornings when God did not forget to remember me, and He showed me through His glorious creation that He is with us.  An undeniable gift greets us new every morning in creation.  God with us.**  Poet, Mary Oliver, writes about how we might greet this gift:

Of course I have to give up  . . . half crazy with the wonder of it —
the abundance . . . the quietness, [and] the hopelessness of my
effort.  And I am in that delicious and important place . . .
full of earth-praise.  Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

**There is a man who I do not really know.  I’ve never met him.  He emails me occasionally.  He doesn’t know anything about me, but he calls me often.  Just yesterday he called and left a message that begins with the greeting he always uses, “Hey, my friend, this is Terry Rush, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I’m just calling to encourage you . . .”  I have learned a significant life lesson from this pastor of many years — ( who has given me a priceless gift — encouragement.  God with us.**  “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

**My friend, Rachel, was in one of those stories that ripped her heart out (and mine too — for her).  The person she trusted most on this earth was unfaithful, betrayed her, and then as often happens in modern day love stories — they split their possessions as well as time with their children — and a decree went out from what seems like a heartless government  that their love story was over.   Rachel raged, cursed, and wondered how in the world God could let this happen.  And then something out of this world happened.  Rachel and her two daughters walked into the grocery story and her five-year-old looked at the Christmas poinsettias and said, “Those are pretty.  We should get one for daddy.”  And the gift of forgiveness took Rachel’s breath away as she said, “Yes!  How kind that you want to get something for your daddy.  Let’s find a really nice one!”  And she meant it.  Forgiveness — God with us.**  As Rachel wrote, “It gave me a glimpse, a tiny one albeit, of what Jesus extends towards me every moment of the day, an extravagant love and a perfect life exchanged for my own tattered one.”

Faithfulness.  Encouragement. Forgiveness.  These are three Advent gifts that have twinkled through the cracks of my life.  In my new favorite book by Anne Lamott, “Help, Thanks, Wow,” she uses a different metaphor than the frog boiling in the water.  It’s a less frightful metaphor.  It’s the metaphor I choose for this Advent season and for the year to come:

Light [those twinkling stars through the cracks of our lives] reveals us to ourselves, which
is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own
creation.  But like sunflowers we turn towards light.  Light warms, and in most cases
it draws us to itself.  And in this light, we can see beyond shadow and illusion to
something beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.
This is all so hard to articulate, because it is so real, so huge, beyond mystery . . .[but]
bits of this deeper reality are perceivable, and little bits of it will have to do . . .That’s
all I ever need, besides the silence, the pain, and the pause sufficient for me to stop,
close my eyes . . . and pray Help, Thanks, Wow.

And so my Christmas wish is that we won’t be frogs simmering in our stories of heartbreak, but that the Advent story will remind us that the baby in the manger is called Emmanuel because He is God with us – the God who came to be with us to draw us, like sunflowers, to the Light.  This would be a nice place to end this meandering mess of a blog, but . . .

As I reread this I realize that it is filled with so many adjectives, metaphors, references to heartbreaking experiences of boiling to death in our own stories and to heartwarming experiences of sunflower stories that draw us to the Light and make us grow; with the twinkling bits of faithfulness, encouragement, and forgiveness thrown in to make even a careful reader wonder what I’m trying to say . . .

So here it is:  My true Christmas wish is that, in moments, I will be that bit of light to you, if you are in the dark and can’t believe that God is with us; and to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who have been light to me, when I have been in the dark.

“When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12).