advent journal: immanuel


    Many summers ago, Ginger and I were leading a youth camp for a group of churches we did not know well. One of the morning classes offered to the young people was massage (not a class I would have chosen to offer to teenagers, but that’s another post). I happened to be walking through the room when I heard the leader say, “Now, grab your partner’s elbow skin.”

    I stopped in the middle of the young massagers and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to mark this moment. Never in my life did I ever expect to hear the sentence, ‘Now, grab your partner’s elbow skin.’” And I kept going.

    Last night my phone rang while I was in the middle of the dinner rush and it was my brother. I called him back on my way home and he uttered another sentence I never expected to hear: “I have a tumor on my spinal cord.” It’s not quite as easy to just keep going after that one.

    In the process of preparing for knee surgery that’s been on the books for some time, his wonderfully attentive doctors found the tumor. The knee will have to wait; the tumor will be removed on the same day he had set aside for the knee repair. And now we all must wait to learn more. The tests have not told us much more than it is a tumor a couple of inches long and about an inch and a half in diameter. The surgery will let us know if it is benign or malignant; the surgery also means a substantial risk, since they will have to open the spinal column to remove the tumor. My brother has both an internist and a surgeon he trusts and is ready to do what needs to be done to not have a tumor on his spine. We are hopeful and prayerful and, well, frightened. (OK – I’m those things.)

    The person in the story of Jesus’ birth that most pulls at me is Joseph, partly because he had to deal with an unexpected sentence of his own. He dreamt an angel came to him and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The situation was no less problematic when he awoke, but he had a different way of seeing: they would call the child Immanuel: God with us.

    Our extended family has a full plate right now. My brother and sister-in-law lost one of their sister-in-laws to cancer last year and just found out another one has weeks to live. My father is living with bladder cancer and my mother is recuperating from extensive surgery. In a little over a week, Ginger will go to Birmingham and drive her parents back to spend the holidays with us because her dad’s Alzheimer’s is progressing and we don’t’ know how many more Christmases he will be able to remember. Each of these situations had a phone call or a conversation that contained one of those heretofore unspoken sentences that create a marker that delineates life before that sentence and life after it. Nobody gets to go back; nobody knows what happens next.

    What we can trust is God is with us.

    I’m not one who sees illness as metaphor for evil; I don’t think our family has been besieged by Satan. I’ve been praying since my phone rang last night that the tumor is benign and removable and everything will go well. I know I have only begun to work through the layers of life to get to how I really feel about what is happening to my brother. I talked to my oldest nephew today and he said, “I’m just hanging on anything positive the doctor says.” I’m right there with him.

    My brother, at one point in our conversation tonight, tried to put it in a larger perspective, saying what he’s facing pales by comparison to suffering around the world or even what his in-laws are going through. He’s right, I suppose, yet part of what matters most about the Incarnation, about Jesus being born in a small stable behind a small inn in an insignificant little village is the larger perspective only makes sense when we let ourselves truly feel the pain and grief and loss that makes up our little lives just like Joseph, for then we can hear the angel say, “Don’t be afraid.”

    The words I turned to tonight were written by the same nephew I talked to this afternoon in a song he wrote in response to his aunt’s death last spring.

    I think about these things
    I don’t know what they mean
    is there joy in suffering
    I think about these things

    it’s gonna be alright
    it’s gonna be alright
    though the darkness holds tight
    we’re locked into the light

    Immanuel: God with us.



    1. “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night…”

      I ‘m sure Bruce didn’t write it the way I have “heard” since Grant was diagnosed, but I will tell you this, there IS magic in the darkness…”

      and lo, I am with you!

      praying for Miller!

      love ya

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