Sunday, December 21, 2014

Love With Urgency - An Advent Meditation

*Author's note: Lindsay's grandfather Mike Barrick passed away on January 10, 2015.

"And I will love with urgency but not with haste."

- from "Not With Haste" on Mumford & Sons' Babel

After days of gray skies, the sun is finally shining in north central West Virginia. Feeling that warmth - strong even as the temperature remains in the low thirties - is enough to remind me of the promise of summer. The winter solstice brings the hope of warmer days ahead while offering us the gift of the longest night.

Tonight, churches the world over - including mine - will hold special services for those trying to reconcile their sadness with the joy of Advent and Christmastime. Hurting, broken people will be met with grace and understanding as they acknowledge their pain during this longest night.

I can't think of another service that better embodies the gospel. After all, Emmanuel - God With Us - enters into a world of pain and meets us all where we are. 

And really, who among us isn't experiencing some sort of ache? Who doesn't long for acceptance and love?

A week ago, my grandfather fell. Pop sustained serious injuries and has been confined to a hospital bed ever since. My family and I continue to wait. We're preparing. For what, we're not quite sure. As we keep vigil, we honor the spirit of Advent.

Last night, my dad and I went to Mass at my grandfather's parish. We offered a prayer and were met with warm embraces. Beautiful old Italian women hugged me out of love for my parents and grandparents. Don, a faithful friend of Pop's, served as cantor for the communion song. We joined in the refrain: "For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you."

Don is in his eighties, but his voice is as pure and sturdy as a man's half his age. Before he sang, as the parishioners shared the peace of Christ, I saw him walk over to his wife. Alzheimer's has done its best to keep her away from most services. With the tenderest smile, he stroked her hair and gave her the sweetest kiss I've ever witnessed.  

After Mass, Father Larry met us in Pop's hospital room. Father Larry became the church's priest in 1980 and retired sixteen years later. I've known him my entire life. Always eager to laugh and trade stories, he's told me time after time that loving people is the most important thing.

His love for people is so authentic and catching. In the dim glow of hospital lights, he recounted his first Christmas as an ordained priest. He was asked to hold Mass on an Army base on the Czech border in 1953. He had grand plans of saving the entire world with his sermon. But when only a dozen people showed up, he was sensitive enough to adapt. He realized these worn out men and women missed their families so he spoke about the loneliness of the manger. In the short time he spent on the snow-covered, isolated base, he made friends with the Baptist chaplain and an African-American couple. 

"That's when it started. That's when I realized it's all about people. They're the best. And that's what Christmas is all about - people."

In an act that echoed his words, he led us in anointing Pop. As equals, we prayed. Father Larry made the sign of the cross on Pop's forehead and hands. He read the gospel account of Jesus forgiving and healing the paralytic. 

"I love this story. You see, Jesus is more concerned about healing our hearts. Offering us peace. He eases the burden inside of us."

Father Larry and I share a laugh after a sweet blessing

Pop's body is certainly in need of healing. But more than that, his heart needed the comfort that forgiveness brings. Through the gentle ministrations of a kind old man devoted to God, Pop received a blessing. My dad and I, weary from worry, experienced holy consolation.

As he left to minister to another friend, Father Larry gave us one more smile. With his eyes twinkling with delight, he whispered as if sharing a favorite secret, "You know, I've come to find that God's love is as unnoticeable as breathing. It's just here. Always."

Christmas really is all about people. When we celebrate the Incarnation, we remember that God chose to become one of us. And when we choose to love people, we honor the Incarnation of Christ within all of us. God is present in each simple act of love: a tender kiss between old lovers; a humble prayer offered for a friend; a gentle hug shared in a hospital room; an uneasy vigil kept day after day. 

May we learn to love with urgency but not with haste. May we rejoice in the promise of warmer days to come even as we experience these present long nights.