Surprised by Joy
By Charles T Rush
December 17, 2000
-- Third Sunday in Advent
Luke 1: 67-79
is full of surprises’, so goes the
platitude. Someone pointed me this week to one of the surprises of the season,
the useless gift. These sort out into some familiar categories.
this under little sister. Jim, from North Dakota, remembers when he was in
college, ‘my baby sister, then 3, wanted to give everyone a gift. She had a
piece of hard Christmas candy she had tried but didn’t like, but from the taste
of it, she thought I would like it. So she wrapped it up and gave it to me on
from Orlando remembers that when he was 5, he wanted to give his Dad a present,
so he wrapped up his razor and his left shoe in a box and put them under the
tree. The next morning Dad went ballistic, late for a meeting, unable to shave.
there are the clueless Aunts and Uncles. Karen of Okalahoma says “My Aunt gave
me a French-English dictionary. I have never taken a French class… it baffles
me to this day.”
this under “same time, next year”. Felicia from St. Louis reports, ‘For 5 years
straight my grandmother would give me a pair of black suede pumps. I never had
the nerve to ask her if she remembered she gave me the same thing last year.’
But that cuts both ways.
Noreen in Saskatoon reports that once her sister gave Grandma aftershave. Maybe
she knew something about Grandma the rest of the family wasn’t ready to handle.
in with the bric-a-brac of the season, the perfunctory chatchka’s that you have
to give at the office party, there is also more profound hopes that well up in
our hearts. Zecheriah sings this wonderful song in praise of God, this morning.
It is the incredible hope that comes with the birth of a new child. Zecheriah was
an older man. He thought his time had past him by and that he and Elizabeth
simply would not have any children. Then, miraculously, she does.
remember hearing a psychiatrist give a paper a few years ago. He made a side
comment that the decision not to have children was perhaps the most important
single decision of your adult life. From it flowed so many other issues of
generativity and meaning that would develop and emerge as you mature and grow
old. That woke me up in the middle of a pretty dull academic afternoon.
the years, I have reflected on his comment, and it seems to me true that issues
around children are more profound than people generally recognize because they
are so wrapped up with fundamental spiritual issues-hope, sacrifice for the
future, and living for something that is beyond you.
have had the occasion to listen to people talk to me about miscarriage. The
grief surrounding it is often far deeper than our society realizes. It is often
far deeper than the couple realized until they went through it.
one of the great unspoken taboos of our age is the difficulty some people have
getting pregnant and how much anxiety that causes. We live in a world where we
think we are entitled to a lot of things. We simply presume that we will be
able to get pregnant when the right time comes. And if there is some
difficulty, we simply assume that there is technology that will be able to fix
it. But, sometimes it can’t.
have a friend that was born into a fertile family. The matriarch, the
grandmother, has 16 grandchildren. She used to say that her sisters got
pregnant every time their husbands just winked at them. She was the only
sibling from her generation that couldn’t get pregnant. And she wanted to. She
was a great mother in waiting. She watched for years as all of her siblings
started their families. She was a great Aunt to all her nieces and nephews.
After she got married, she was gracious when people asked her when she was
going to start a family of her own. Those are tough questions to answer when
you emotionally know what the answer is, even though you haven’t brought
yourself to actually get a full medical assessment just yet.
fact, it was hard for her and her husband to actually talk about it. Deeply
dashed hopes are like that, the elephant in the middle of the room that no one
wants to acknowledge. They had been married for several years, tried to get
pregnant, but couldn’t. It affected their marriage more than they knew. One
day, it seemed like a rash thing but, looking back, it wasn’t really. Her husband told her that he had started an
affair with another woman. There was more. The woman was pregnant. There was
more. He was leaving to get married to another woman he hadn’t known all that
long and raise a family together. I believe this news was delivered on
Christmas day. And a Merry Christmas to you too.
was such a trooper through that whole, painful time of her life. I can’t begin
to imagine the hurt, the rage, the loneliness, the sorrow. The ‘why me’? The
profound absence of God, too.
forward. Years later, after many changes, she met another man, a wonderful man.
You would have thought that God had chosen this man from before the foundations
of the universe to be with her and for her. They dated, fell in love, then came
she came to this impasse. She felt that she needed to tell him she couldn’t
have children. They weren’t even married yet, but she knew they had to get this
through if they were going to take this relationship to the next level. That in
itself made the whole thing so weird because they hadn’t exactly talked about
marriage or anything yet. She was
filled with anxiety, all the demons of the past came back to haunt her
in one tempest filled night. She was feeling inadequate. She was waiting for
rejection… again. She was dreading miserable loneliness. She was going to be so
controlled during the discussion but once she started talking leading up to what she wanted to tell him she started
crying and she just couldn’t stop crying.
crying about something important she has to tell him. He thinks she is about to
break up with him and he is about to start crying too. He was holding her,
listening to all her fears. Finally she blurts out that she can’t have
children. Immediately, he says, “Children… oh we’ll get children. We’ll adopt;
It will be okay; we’ll adopt.” How’s that for a sort of marriage proposal?
later, they did. We followed them through the entire adoption paper work, the
enormous, voluminous paper work, the reference checks. They found a boy to
adopt in Viet Nam. Then the authorities there shut down adoption in their
province. They were encouraged to find another child in another province. No,
they would wait for this boy. It took a whole year filled with more paper work,
more bureaucratic hassles. Then, one day, they had to drop their jobs
indefinitely, both of them, and fly immediately to Viet Nam. The enormous
bureaucratic hassles once they got there, the veiled threats for pay offs, the
waiting. Finally, after three weeks of waiting, they got him.
were coming back through Newark airport at 5:30 in the morning. Kate and I went
to meet them between flights. They had been on a series of flights from Ho Chi
Min city with a year old child that took 27 hours. What a nightmare marathon
start. Natural birth mothers get a few days rest and a family to come wait on
them. Adoption mothers, these days, get to run the gauntlet to get started.
They got off that plane jet lagged, tired, elated, laughing and crying at the
same time. The sun was just coming up in the East. We brought them the first
over priced, branded coffee they’d had in three weeks.
is such a visceral, profound hope-filled joy in children. St. Augustine once
said “With each new birth, hope springs eternal.” I recently sent a note to one
of my godson’s. It was one of those things his mother will file away for him to
keep that he will read when he is older. It was a series of blessings and hopes
for his life. One of them said that ‘you will get it right where we screwed it
up.” That is the hope we pin on the next generation. Hold those babies in your
arms and think, they have to do better than us.
had been in that position for a long time. Prophets had not spoken in two
hundred years. They were occupied by the Roman army, prisoners in their own
land. They felt abandoned by God. Zecheriah and Elizabeth were symbols of the
whole country, spiritually and physically infertile. God comes to them and
makes them a promise of a son in their advanced age. Zecheriah can’t believe
it, won’t believe it. God strikes him mute until the birth of John and our text
is the song of praise that he sings when John is born.
think part of the simplicity and the profundity of the Christmas season is
wrapped up in this spiritual hope for new birth- for justice and peace in our
world, for something new in the next generation, for something new that God is
At the same time,
spiritually and physically, this season reminds us how much we want to go
home. Even if we’ve never had much of a home to go home to, the idea of
being at home is a profound spiritual longing. We want to be loved and accepted
and find our place at the table. Like the wonderful parable that Jesus gave
about the man that invited people to his wedding banquet and said ‘go out to
the highways and by-ways and invite them all to come in- the lame, the
dispossessed, everyone has a place at the table. Jesus taught us to see
everyone as our neighbors, even those that are our historic enemies, to take
care of the Samaritans we find on the side of the road. Jesus taught us that we
all need to be healed. We all need to find our way home. We look to the next
generation with the profound hope that our homes will be healed. We hope that,
in fact, the Spirit of God’s hospitality will break out in our midst and those
around us will find real love and acceptance.
following is a true story that appeared in New York Magazine under the
column “True Tales of New York”, written by Gloria Gonzalez (my thanks to Lanny
Peters at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, GA who brought this to my
grow up fast in Spanish Harlem, especially if your parents are supers of the
building. You see a lot… F.B.I. agents looking for former tenants, welfare
caseworkers lurking in the alley trying to catch a father ‘visiting,’ the bill
collectors posing as relatives.
are also the good times, the open-house parties every Friday night after
cashing the paycheck. One long-awaited celebration was the night that Jose was
due home after three years as a United States Marine.
family had contributed a home-cooked dish and a dollar for the beer and soda.
Neighbors began decorating the apartment with crepe paper and balloons the
night before, and someone dispatched to the local funeral parlor to borrow
day of the party, relatives arrived from the Bronx and from as far away as San
Juan. Papo, Jose’s cousin and I were posted on the stoop as lookouts.
taxi arrived and deposited its passenger. Papo and I paid scant attention to
the tall brunette in the off-the shoulder blouse and billowing skirt.
wasn’t till she screamed our names and swept us off the ground in a crushing
hug that we realized that the perfumed woman was Jose!
a daze we lugged her suitcases up two flights, our eyes fixed on Jose’s ankles,
strapped into stilletto heels, as he took the stairs two at a time while urging
us to hurry.
the music of Tito Puente in the background, Jose threw the door open and
announced, “I am home.” The needle was pulled on Tito Puente.
Jose, the person has not changed. Only the outside. You are my family and I
love every one of you. If you want me to go I will go and not be angry. But if
you find it in your heart to love Josefina, I would love to stay.”
one spoke. Everyone stared. Those who didn’t speak English waited for the
whispered translation. Even the outside city noises seemed to halt abruptly. I
stood in the doorway, still holding the suitcase, not daring to enter.
what seemed like hours- but could have only been moments- his mother stumbled
forward and said to her son, “Are you hungry?”
I was eleven. It was the best party
I ever went to.
Gonzalez, West New York, New Jersey
No matter how they come- diseased or
healthy, depressed or on top of the world, morally compromised or full of
virtue, whether they are friends or strangers, may the Spirit of God’s
hospitality break out in your midst,
may you be privileged to feed them and welcome them home.