A Candle of Love

December 20, 2015


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Dec. 20, 2015

“A Candle of Love”

I’ve been thinking this week about the two gospel writers who sat down and actually attempted to put into words what it looks like when God comes into our world. I’d like to ask those of you here today to imagine yourself as a writer or a philosopher or a religious person who is tasked with telling others about God’s action in our world.

We all know that good stories answer the questions:

But there is more to a good story. It requires a beginning, and a body of the story, and an end. How would you frame your story about God being present in our world? Where would you start? What would you use as a theme?

The writer of Matthew started out reminding his readers of their heritage. “Remember our father, Abraham? Oh, and remember King David? Remember when our people were deported to Babylon? We have quite a history!” Matthew’s writer tells the story from a historical point of view.

The writer of Luke starts his story with a fanciful flair: an old priest and his wife find themselves surprised by an angelic visitor who promised that a baby is coming. The old priest is literally dumbstruck with this news and loses his voice and begins to pantomime what the angel told him. When his old wife learns she is pregnant, she stays home in seclusion for 5 months. You almost get the sense that this gospel writer wanted to start his story with “Once upon a time…”

I’ve been noticing that this story of God coming into our world gets told over and over, in different voices and in a variety of ways. It seems to me that we – you and I – have even been telling it ourselves. Whenever someone asks us to explain our faith, we stutter and stammer, we sing, we read, we pray, we speak. And all that we do is attempting to tell the story of how God comes into the world… a world of chaos, and evil, sorrow, and heartache, but also a world of goodness, hope, and love.

Some write the story of God coming into the world with war images – God swoops in unexpectedly and gives the terrible people of the world what they deserve. This is a god who builds walls and judges sternly.

The thing about it is that most of us concern ourselves with writing the story of God coming only during the bleakest of times in our lives. When we are aching with the dark realities of life, we open ourselves in vulnerability and recognize that we are in desperate need of a God intervention. That is the color of Advent – the deep purple of winter nights.

I’ve had the anguish and joy of watching one young couple from afar as they are living out the nativity story in real time. Diane and Joe are real people (though I have changed their names). They had a planned pregnancy; truly desired another baby and to their knowledge, had a normal pregnancy until she went for her routine 20 week ultrasound. During the ultrasound, Diane noticed the baby’s head was measuring smaller than normal, but didn’t think too much about it. By the way, Diane is a physician who delivers babies. The sonographer took several pictures and measurements, and then said she needed to talk to the radiologist, and that the radiologist would be calling her OB (and colleague and friend). Diane and Joe, at that point, knew something was terribly wrong. Later that afternoon, they received a diagnosis of Holoprosencephaly.
Their child, a girl, has the type of HPE that carries 100% fatality either in utero or immediately after birth. They were given various options about how (and if) to proceed with the pregnancy. After a long and very reassuring discussion with a neonatologist (who is also the head of the bioethics committee at the hospital, and is a woman of faith), Diane & Joe were reassured that continuing the pregnancy would not cause any pain or suffering to the baby they have already named Elizabeth. At that point, they made the decision to continue with the pregnancy and allow her life to continue in God’s timing.

I am not telling their story as an example of pro-choice or pro-life. I am telling their story as an example of faith and love. Diane & Joe’s reaction, upon receiving the diagnosis, were of shock and despair and sadness, and as she said “the spectrum” of the emotional rainbow. When I asked why they would choose to continue a pregnancy that will absolutely end in despair and death, they indicated that they:
* wanted to continue to know and love Ellie for whatever amount of time they had, Diane said that they only get to be her parents for a few months.
* would consider that time a blessing in their lives,
* would, as the scriptures say, “be changed” by her,
* “Along with Joe”, she writes, “I am probably the person who is most aware of and affected by the weight of Ellie’s condition and prognosis (and it is a heavy weight most days). On the flip side, I am also the only person who knows, on an hourly basis, that she is alive – moving and kicking – within me.”
* and that they wanted as much of an opportunity for God’s story to be told through her short life.

They acknowlege that they see God as first revealing love to the world through a child and that Jesus lived his life caring for “the least of these” in his ministry. Children tell an un-adulterated version of what grace, and faith and compassion look like.

Joe & Diane know a pain and a suffering and a need for grace that few of us experience. Yet, in this time, they are living a faith that can’t be found except for in experiences of despair and suffering. You know, like you don’t really know the Lord until you’ve experienced that deep, dark place. Christ is found in trials and suffering.

And when people tell Diane that they admire her faith and her resolve, she reassures them that, like Mary, she doesn’t have a choice. She wasn’t asked. But she does know that all of the scientific intervention in the world isn’t going to save her baby, and so, she has no choice but to be held by her faith. She has no choice but lean on God, because as a scientist in her own right, she has met the limitations of science.

Her faith is, at this point, her sustaining force, because there is no grace in science. There is no possibility of a scientific miracle or potential change in medical outcomes for her, and so the miracles told through her daughter will be miracles offered by God. Don’t get me wrong. Diane & Joe aren’t expecting a different outcome than the one that has been shown by science. But they expect that the process of the pregnancy, the birth, the life, and the death of their daughter will bring opportunities for little miracles of love and compassion.
Diane said, “I have never been more aware of God’s closeness, of how he mourns for us and weeps with us and stands near to the brokenhearted. This may sound cliche, but it really has been true for me in the last 2 months. God loves us by entering in to our grief and sadness with us, and doesn’t tell us to keep a chin up and get over it. I have never faced a circumstance in my life where my only option is Jesus; with Ellie, He is literally our only option. Initially, this was a helpless feeling, but with each passing day, I realize that this is a sweet place to be, fully reliant on the Lord! I don’t know if I ever felt Him closer than I have felt him in the last 10 weeks. He has sustained me, He has given peace, and sleep, and endurance, and I know He will continue to do this.
Diane & Joe are living a Christmas story – one in which God is being born into the world again. Their story is one of ultimate compassion, and grace, and mercy through the life of their daughter.

Many parents would not write their story in the same way that Joe & Diane are. They chose a different theme or a different beginning and end. I’m not here to talk about their process – only to observe that love is being born in them this Christmas. As they nurture a pregnancy and a daughter that will certainly die in the short term, they know that they are experiencing a love too deep for words.

Their story reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s words: “If I were alone in a desert and feeling afraid, I would want a child to be with me. For then my fear would disappear and I would be made strong. That is what life in itself can do because it is so noble, so full of pleasure and so powerful.”

Today, we lit the candle of love. Love is a word that gets bantied around too much. People say they love pizza or they love that color or even that they love their home. But to love God or another person is something far different. It is the process of writing a story about love being born in our own lives.

I know a couple who have been in the news lately. She is a professional and works in a somewhat public position. They have always been upstanding citizens and contributing members of society. But, they made a tragic mistake and they got caught. Together, they were arrested of 5 felony counts and spent more than a week in jail. They came to see me this week – still raw from the degrading process of being arrested, strip searched, thrown into jail, arraigned, and bailed out by their parents and their children. That’s right – their 5 children, all of whom are under age 21, set up a go-fund me page and pooled their money and bailed their parents out of jail.

This couple faces a long legal battle and the probable loss of jobs and the lifestyle they have enjoyed. Yet, they were writing a Christmas story when they talked with me. She said, “I was getting bored with my job and knew I needed a change, but I was secure and rather stuck. Now, I don’t have a choice. I’m going to need to reinvent myself. Perhaps I will write a book about this experience. This crisis has given me the opportunity to re-create my life in a new way.”

He said, “I’ve learned that I need to conserve my energy for the important things in life. I don’t want to be around people who bring me down or who drain my energy. I’m choosing to be positive and hopeful and that takes all of my energy right now.”

Two tragic stories of love and loss. Why would l chose these to share with you on Christmas Sunday? Advent is a time when those who believe are looking for light in a world threatened by darkness and fear. Advent is the time to reaffirm that love is the most powerful and fundamental reality in the universe – because God is love. And when God is born into our world… it is usually in the deepest, darkest nights. And that is the best of the good news!
• When we need an intervention the most, God shows up.
• When we are at our lowest, God is born.
• When we turn our lives around, God comes to help.
• When we are desperate and lonely and lost, the love of God carries us through.

We are all writing the gospel story with our choices, our words, and our very lives. Will your story include a nativity where God is born into the world to bring hope, peace, joy and love?

A New Zealand Prayer says:
Welcome, welcome, Jesus Christ our infant savior,
Baby who makes every birth holy.
May we, who like the shepherds
Have witnessed in the stable a new kind of love,
Return to our work with joy.
May we, for whom the heavens have opened
To proclaim that God is with us,
We who have been fed on living bread
And drunk the wine of heaven,
Go out to be instruments of your peace, day by day
As we birth the Christ into our world.”