A moment of peace.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40.

A few months ago, I met a family in ER. The family had been in an accident that could have been tragic, but wasn’t. However, mom was in one room being checked on, dad was in another, a sister was in another, and the three-year-old boy was scared. Mom was still wearing a collar, so he couldn’t be in her room. His attempts to cling would have been potentially dangerous. So he was with dad, who needed to be examined.

momAnd so this chaplain took the boy from a nurse.  I stood and started the swaying rocking that parents learn with infants and never forget. I started the almost tuneless humming that creates a quiet contrast to sobs.

There was no place for reasoning, there was no place for calm discussion. There was simply the need to hold him.

It took a long time. But he quieted enough to fall asleep. I kept holding him until family reinforcements arrived.

That’s the image at the end of the reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, the portion of Isaiah 40 above. The image of a shepherd caring for sheep,  holding bleating lambs  to his heart. When we distill down the weeks of Advent to single words, the word for this week is PEACE.

And as we think about the story of me holding the little boy, and of the shepherd holding the lamb, I want to point to this truth:

Sometimes God’s peace comes in moments of panic when we are simply embraced by him.

For a 3-year-old, being on a vacation trip, being in an accident, being unable to cling to his parents, being in an ER a panicking time! For an adult, being in the ER while losing his Father can be a panicking time, too. And a breath at a time, with an embrace coming inexplicably inside, or from a person standing near, we often find an unreasonable peace.

Not that removes the cause of the pain, but that sustains us, a breath at a time.

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What simple thing can you do?

Mark tells a story about a dinner late in the life of Jesus. It’s in Bethany, at the house of someone known as Simon the Leper.

I would guess that Jesus had healed Simon. People identified as carriers of a contagious skin disease didn’t have dinner parties. If they did, no one came.

The room full of people is eating. A woman walks in carrying a white perfume jar. She opens it and pours it on Jesus’ head.

There is an uproar. She’s scolded for wasting good perfume on Jesus.

Which is an interesting idea. If it had been cheap perfume, would that have been better? Although they said that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, I don’t think they cared about the poor. I’m guessing that the combination of the woman in the room, the unusual anointing, and the extreme expense combined to cause a ruckus.

it's @hope_swanson. baker.Jesus stops the attack. He accepts her action as appropriate for him, regardless of whether anyone else thought it appropriate. Although he doesn’t minimize caring for the poor in other settings, here he accepts the gift directly for him. And he says, “She did what she could.”

It makes me ask us, you and me, “what can we do?” What’s an extravagance we can waste on God?

Time is at a premium. We could squander some time with God. Attention is in short supply. We could pour out some attention on what God attends to. Personal space, the top of the to-do list, the last word. In this season when we are working hard to meet expectations, I’d love to be standing in a room, watching someone being scolded by people, and hear “Stop. He did what he could.”

Saint John and the Cubs.

Nancy and I walked past Arnie’s Jerseys and Stuff. It’s the local sports memorabilia store. We usually ignore it, not being fans of the teams, the old players, or the markups. This time I stopped, staring at the Ernie Banks Cubs uniform shirt. It was part of a display of Cubs items. After they won the World Series, everyone became a fan. But the price on the Banks jersey made me stop.

As I stared, I heard a voice behind us.

“Chicago fans are irrationally faithful. Just like my friend Nathanael.”

It was Saint John.

“What do you mean?” I said.

relationship“Year after year, Cubs fans kept watching for a winning season. They kept showing up to worship at Wrigley, even when there was no hope of a positive outcome to the season. People learned the names of people who would never wear rings, never hold pennants, never play baseball in November.”

I grinned. “Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ron S…”

John held up his hand. “You learned those when you were 9 years old. How many more years after than before they won the World Series?”

“Forty-eight years.”

“Irrationally faithful,” he said. “Like Nathanael. We grew up together. He was looking for the Messiah, learning details, memorizing Torah, keeping faith. But like you and the Cubs, I’m pretty sure Nathanael thought Messiah would ever come.”

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Because when Philip told him that Jesus was the Messiah, Nathanael pushed back. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ was his first question. Can anything of value come from around here, from where we grew up.”

“But if Nathanael was such a doubter, why did Jesus accept him?” As I said it, I realized that we almost always talk about accepting Jesus, not the other way around.

John smiled.

“Jesus knew his heart, knew that Nathanael wanted to believe in someone. He just didn’t want to be disappointed again. And Jesus knew that wasn’t going to happen.”

I looked at him, uncertain.

“Jesus was the certainty for irrationally faithful people. Nathanael’s healthy skepticism about pretenders was grounded in a desire to be proven right.”

“Like the people who wept when the 2016 Cubs won,” I said.

John smiled. “Ah, but so much more.”

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The story is based in John 1. The post is day 7 from Saint John of the Mall.

NICU

I walked through NICU the other day. For those who haven’t had to learn those letters, it stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It’s where babies who need amazing, special, heart-sacrificing care go. Sometimes they are born early. Sometimes they are born with broken things or misconnected things.

I walked through NICU and heard just a phrase of a Christmas song: “…I’ll be home for Christmas…” I winced.

That’s the dream, the desire, the prayer, the desperate or confident cry of every parent and every coworker in that unit on behalf of every child that is in a bed.

I wasn’t going to say anything about it here. It felt like one of my internal melancholy Christmas season observations. Until I read a Facebook post from Hope, our daughter, about the baby of her friends, a baby who is in NICU at another hospital:

one conversation.“Friends,” she said,  “please pray for a sweet baby boy whose body isn’t doing well. Pray that his parents would feel comfort and peace and that the hospital staff would make the best choices. Pray that his big brother and sister would be sheltered from the anxiety and tension that this family is experiencing.
Pray that God’s name would be glorified, regardless of outcome.
H and Z, you and J are deeply loved and prayed for. “

Hope’s request resonates with my every-Sunday-Morning-Hospital-Chapel prayer: “God, give those providing care wisdom beyond their training, and compassion beyond their emotions.”

I still might not have said anything about it here, but on the day this is published, I’m talking to a class of nurses about responding to death situations. Which means I get to be part of that training I pray about, knowing that some of them will likely end up in NICU someday, before Christmas, listening to a wishful song.

And so, for the nurses and parents and techs and grandparents and friends and siblings, if you struggle a little with all the festivity when your heart is aching, I echo the words of Hope: “You are deeply loved and prayed for.”

 

Hope: honesty, openness, paying attention, expectancy.

As I said yesterday,  I’d like to suggest that Hope starts with

  • Honest acknowledgement of a sense of struggle
  • Openness to God’s power and role

As we start Advent, those two things are in tension. As we read in Isaiah 6-64. “God, you can do this, where are you? That’s the hospital challenge, of course, the tension that families face all the time.: “God, you could take care of this, but where are you?”

0606091400.jpg>That’s the challenge we face in our hearts, too. We feel this internal struggle between “I’m hurting, but desiring” and “You are willing, but not here.”

And then we turn to Paying attention to what we can do. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians starts by inviting them to pay attention to the capacities and identity and teaching they have.

“We taught this and God has confirmed this” Paul says.

“When you are honest, you know you have these gifts to work with” Paul says.

So believe and do.

Although we can’t fix everything, what are the ways we can be preparing.

And in this first week of Advent, I have to ask, “Where can we be about lighting candles” In the light of mid-morning, a candle feels irrelevant. But in the growing darkness of this season, the simple act of lighting a candle is an act of faith, a statement of hope.

And finally, Expectancy. This is the heart of Advent.

We use Christmas morning as an archetype of expectancy. The kid opening a present. It’s what advertising is built around this time of year.

But we know, if we are honest, that those moments can be disappointing. Which was the universal response to Jesus. People expected KING and got…..Jesus. Pretty cool, but no king. Really kind, kind of shepherd-like, but no king.

And then he left.

The Isaiah words are spoken as the people of Israel, the people of God, at a time when they felt unchosen by God. It’s still true every day in many places in the world.

But the readings, from Isaiah 64 and Mark 13 and 1 Corinthians 1 point out that the first coming, the birth coming, the coming that ended with a few guys watching Jesus leave, wasn’t the end of the story.

So as we light the candle of HOPE at the beginning of Advent, in the light of the candle, watch. Because there is the confident assurance of hope.