I have been thinking about the Advent/Christmas season since July. I'm not exactly sure why, since our family's stress around the holiday season skyrockets. With the cultural demands (you can read that "materialism" if you wish) and all the changes in routine and the snowy weather patterns in this part of the world and focused church rituals and experiences ... all that, combined with the stresses that many children with special needs feel ... well, it creates more heat than a steaming bowl of wassail, often without the interior warmth a holiday drink might provide.
But, I've been thinking about this season since the steamy days of summer when I made some worship planning choices as to what I would be preaching. As I prayerfully considered what that might look like, lo those long months ago, I was continually drawn to Matthew's gospel, the first two chapters. Especially I was struck by the five dream encounters that together weave the account of the Nativity and early years of Jesus. As the series has developed in my mind, I finally settled on a theme: "To Dream Again."
Unfortunately, due to illness I was unable to preach the first sermon in the series this past Sunday. I am seldom ill enough on a Sunday not to lead worship and preach, and when it is at the start of a series I have been so looking forward to it is a disappointment. I am fortunate to have a very gifted spouse who can hear me groan in the early morning hours on a Sunday, "I think you're going to have to preach for me this morning," and have her respond in a supportive fashion. I am grateful for that gift!
So this morning, as I'm sitting at my home desk before readying myself to come back into the office for the first time in days, I hear a knock at the door as our new grandson Isaac's mother asks me, "Is it OK if he stays in here with you for a few minutes?" I readily offer my assent and she lays his beautiful little six-week self on my bed, handing me his nearly finished bottle of formula.
He is joy in a small human bundle. Thick pitch-black hair frames his healthy pink forehead, his eyes sparkling depths of energy, his rosy cheeks a picture of baby health. Within seconds of his arrival I am hovering over him, kissing his warm, tender cheek and lifting him into my arms. As I cradle his young body in my left arm I nestle him into the crook, steadying his bobbing head, stroking his clean, shiny hair. His glance catches mine, and I whisper grandfatherly sweet nothings into his ears, offering him the remainder of his bottle.
Although I am the father of twelve children, I have never had the delight of nurturing such a tiny little life. Our youngest child arrived at the age of nine months, well past the fragile temerity of infancy. Coupled with their older ages and multiple caretakers early in life, even our youngest children have not always been easy to hold or to cuddle. They learned early, far too early, to push themselves away from their caretakers, responding to inconsistent care or to neglect. While I have loved all of my children, there have been too many moments when I, too, have experienced the painful rejection of their attachment issues.
But this baby is different. This baby was born to cuddle and nestle, to be loved and to love, to know from the very start of life security and contentment. His parents, though young, are attentive and kind and loving to their son. They do not allow their own disagreements or conflicts to disrupt their relationship with young Isaac. They talk to him quietly, they lovingly feed and clothe him, they generously offer him time to know his grandparents.
And so, as I revel in these thoughts, I set the bottle on my desk and rearrange his placement from the crook of my arm to that place seemingly made just for the face of babies, just beneath the caregiver's cheek and chin. I feel the warmth of his little body on my upper chest as his face looks just beyond my shoulders. He is close enough to my ear that I can hear the rapid inhale-exhale rhythm of his snuffling nose and mouth. I pat his back, just a little harder now, to facilitate his post-formula burp, as I feel the warmth of his swaddled body next to mine. In those brief moments his tiny little arms reach around my giant neck as he squeezes tight.
My heart catches, my eyes begin to mist, as my thoughts are drawn back to the season of the year and to the sermon series I will preach. Like shooting stars in the darkness of my imagination I see rapid-fire glimpses of the biblical narrative. I see Abraham and Sarah as they welcome their own baby Isaac into their aged world. I ponder momentarily the torturous act of faith Abraham embarks upon when an older Isaac is placed upon an altar of sacrifice, to be rescued at the last minute by a providential Creator. I remember that "Isaac" means "laughter." And I smile to myself. God allowed this childless, elderly couple to dream again.
In the soul-lifting warmth of that moment I find myself reflecting. The past few years have been very difficult for many of our children (and correspondingly, very difficult for us as parents). The challenges have seemed overwhelming at times, and dreaming has been only a luxury; simple survival has been reality. More times than I want to admit I have resentfully grumbled, "It has made no difference at all to adopt these children. The results would have been the same had I never known them." I began the journey of adoption with optimism and idealism. There was a time when I was hopeful and had moments of joy. But lately not so much.
If I am honest with myself I know why I chose the Advent/Christmas theme I did. I am out of hope, and I have been for some time. To have no hope is a dusty, desert experience of waiting, at first longingly and then languidly, for some sign of life. No longer expecting a drenching downpour of spiritually reviving rain, one without hope wonders whether even a drop will touch the tongue before the ravages of life's burning environment will sizzle it away.
But there's something about a fresh, dewy-eyed new life that invades the corridors of a tired old man's emptiness. With baby Isaac molded to my upper chest I whisper, "Beautiful baby, you are hope for the next generation." I kiss his glistening, baby-scented hair. I hear his life-filled puffs of breath. I feel his contented warmth. I delight in this dance of attachment between grandfather and grandson.
And I begin to dream. Again.