When the Ordinary is Suspended

When the Ordinary is Suspended December 29, 2015

There’s a short story written by Philip Gulley, well-known Christian writer and Quaker pastor from Indiana. Here’s how it goes:

I was born deep in the winter. Each birthday my father phones to recount the events surrounding my birth. Our sons are asleep in their bedroom under the eaves. My wife and I are sitting in front of the fireplace; she is doing her needlework and I am reading a mystery. The phone rings. I ease out of my chair, walk to the kitchen, pick up the phone and say, “Hello.”

It is my father. No “Hello.” No “How are you?” Just the same question each birthday: “Have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I tell him.

Snow Storm“Well, it was eight o’clock in the evening when your mother went into labor. I remember the time because Gunsmoke was just starting. There was a terrible snowstorm. We could barely see the neighbor’s house for the snow. We got in the car to drive to the hospital in the city. Our defroster didn’t work, and I couldn’t see through the windshield. I had to drive the whole twenty miles with my head out the window. It was so cold my face was frostbitten. I ran a red light and a policeman pulled me over and said he was going to give me a ticket. I told him to hurry up because my wife was going to have a baby. The policeman said, ‘Follow me!’ and he turned on his lights and siren and off we went, all the way to the hospital where you were born. Not everyone can say that. That makes you special.

Even when I was a child, my mother would tuck me into bed, kiss my forehead, then leave the room. My father would come in and sit at the foot of my bed and ask, “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?”

“I don’t believe so,” I would tell him.

He would lean back, close his eyes, and conjure up that memory — the snow and the swirling red lights and the siren’s wail. I’ve heard that story nearly forty times and I never tire of it. Every year I wonder the same things: Will they make it in time? Will I be alright? Of course I will be, because here I am. But the way my father tells the story leaves the outcome in doubt and I never quite relax until the story concludes with me safely delivered.

In my teenage years, when my father and I were at odds, I would remember how he had suffered frostbite to bring me safely into the world … and my heart would soften. I was a skinny kid, the target of bullies. When beaten up and ridiculed, I would take comfort in the fact that I was ushered into this world with a police escort and they were not. It was a wonderful gift my father gave me, that story. He could not give me wealth or fame to ease my way, so he gave me that story and it provided a deep consolation.

Two years ago on my birthday, my parents invited us for Sunday dinner. We were seated in the dining room. I said to my father, “Tell me about my birth, about the policeman and the snow.”

“What policeman?” my mother asked. “What snow?”

“The policeman who escorted you and Dad to the hospital the night I was born. Remember? It was snowing and the defroster was broken and Dad got frostbite from driving twenty miles with his head out the window.”

Mom said, “It wasn’t snowing — it was unusually warm that day. And he wouldn’t take me to the hospital until Gunsmoke was over. It was his favorite show, you know. He almost named you Festus.”

I looked across the table at my father. He smiled, winked, and said nothing. It was all a story — no snow, no policeman, no frostbite, no siren, no swirling lights. But it was my story, true or not, and I was grateful for it. I did not have wealth or fame or muscles or good looks to ease my way into this world. But I did have my story. My father gave it to me. It was his gift to me, bestowed with love, and I treasure it.

[Last year on my birthday] I was sitting in our living room. The phone rang. It was my father. “Say, have I ever told you what happened the night you were born?” he asked.

“I don’t believe so,” I answered.

He spoke of blowing snow and running a red light and how he got frostbite. He told me about the policeman who pulled him over and the police escort with the swirling lights and the siren. “Not everyone gets a police escort,” he pointed out. “That makes you special.”

This is the story passed from father to son. He has no wealth to bestow, no fame to offer. He has only this story to remind his son that on the day he was born, the ordinary was suspended and the miracles flew thick.

Many, many years ago, deep in the winter, a husband and wife rode a donkey through a freak blizzard in the Middle East. The woman was great with child and was completely bundled up riding on the donkey, but the father got frostbite where the wind swirled through the opening in his hood that he needed in order to see where they were going.

There was no room for them at the inn, but the innkeeper escorted them through the howling wind to a stable, and there, under a flashing, red “NO VACANCY” sign, the mother gave birth to her baby boy without assistance and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.

Overhead, a new star celebrated in bright glory, and shepherds and the wise men made their way to the stable, an angel chorus sang through the night.

And so every year, every day, every time we hear this story — this story of Jesus, this story of our world caught in a place where miracles fly thick — we wonder the same things: will it all work out? Will love overcome apathy? Will everything be alright? For we heard the words of Mary predicting salvation — the mighty brought low and the hungry full. But the way the story is told leaves the outcome in doubt, and we never quite relax because, let’s face it: the story is not over yet. The salvation ushered in by the birth of Messiah is God’s dream for the world, coming to be right here and now.

So this year, hear the story again, and let the words sing in your soul, like the song of the angels.

When evil intrudes, when salvation seems far-off, when we are at odds with God, when we doubt that the birth of a baby could change much of anything, much less our suffering world, may we remember the story of how God came to earth to bring us salvation and may our hearts soften.

Because, it’s a wonderful gift we have, this story. It reminds us that we live all our days as Advent, expecting and anticipating the coming birth, and living with eyes wide open to see God among us right here and now. Salvation for a world desperately in need of a miracle or two or three, God’s stubborn work to use us to tell the story, to usher in the healing of this world, to imagine a time when the ordinary is suspended and the miracles fly thick.

Originally Posted on Baptist News Global

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