Christmas 2014

I believed in God, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

I was raised in a household with a strong Christian tradition. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends all believed in God and that Jesus Christ was our Savior. Like my mother, I was raised, baptized, and confirmed in the United Methodist church (technically I was first baptized as a Methodist Episcopal as the church was known before 1968). My family believed in the grace of God, in redemption, and forgiveness. I was taught that God was present everywhere. In the whisper of the breeze through the forest, the grandeur of the mountains, the song of the sparrow. I was taught that God was good and God was great.

As I grew in experience and intellect I pondered the mysteries of the infinite and eternity. I asked my self often “is this all there is?” and I came to the spiritual and logical conclusion that there must be more to existence. There must be a God. I studied the Gospel and found that the teachings of Jesus Christ were good and right and that to follow His footsteps was to walk the path to salvation. I’ll be honest and say that like many early Christians I question the divinity of Jesus. However, I have never questioned that he had a relationship with God which was unique in all of history and that he spoke with the authority of one who knew God and understood the meaning of life.

So, I’ll say it again…

There is no doubt that I believed in God. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

My father died on Christmas Day 2013. I’ll never forget being by his bedside that morning in the dim light of the hospital room, surrounded by family, as he took his last breaths. This was made even more difficult because it seemed to parallel the death of his mother many years earlier and by the fact that his sister died just the year before. My father died on Christmas Day, the “best time of the year.”

My spirit and faith were crushed.

Now, we all know that death is part of life and I’m certainly not the only person to lose a loved one on a holiday. In fact, I know a woman who lost her father last year over Thanksgiving – and then lost her mother this year over Thanksgiving. A cousin lost both her aunt on Christmas Eve and her uncle (Dad) on Christmas day.  I have many friends who have lost one or both their parents, including most of my cousins (how they have been living with the pain all these years I’ll never know). So why should Dad’s passing cause a crisis in faith for me? Was this crisis all because life wasn’t going according to my internal script? Going by MY plan?

Or was it because after we had returned from the hospital Christmas Eve, with the knowledge and understanding that Dad would not pull out of this, I whispered a simple prayer, “please let him rest through the night without incident, please give us a miracle and let him recover.”  Then seemingly within moments of whispering this prayer the phone rang, we needed to get back to the hospital quickly if we wanted to be with Dad in his final moments. Not what I wanted at all. I drove back to the hospital with my mind filled with grief and anger.

Though 77 years old, Dad was not supposed to die yet. He was remarkably healthy except for this small spot of cancer that had formed in his mouth several months earlier. He was fit and strong with a clear, sharp mind. The surgery went well and he followed all the recommended protocols and the advice of the doctors – difficult though it was at times. “There’s no sense in hiring and expert if you are going to ignore his advice” he said. He tolerated the chemo and seemed to be doing well with the radiation treatments. “Seemed” being the operative word. What we didn’t know is that the radiation was weakening the muscles in the back of his throat so that he could no longer swallow properly. Our first clue came in October when he developed pneumonia. But, he was out of the hospital in a few days and seemed to recover. Then mom noticed he didn’t seem quite like himself and he wasn’t bouncing back when all the treatments ended like he should have. We learned later that he asked his primary care physician “what if I don’t get better? I can’t go on like this.”

He was weak and drained for no reason. Sleeping a lot more and then about a week before Christmas I get the call from Mom, “come home, you’re Dad is not acting right we need to get to the hospital.” He was confused, didn’t know basic facts. In the emergency room he got some oxygen and seemed to be recovering. He was admitted overnight for observation. One day stretched to two, then three, then four…

Aspiration Pneumonia is what the doctors told us he had and there was no chance for recovery. They could extend his life through drastic measures but he would need assistance breathing for the rest of his life and once incubated would never come off that breathing tube. We knew that Dad would not want to live like this so the most difficult decision of our lives was made. We knew what Dad would do and want. We let nature take it’s course.

Let God’s will be done.

In that moment I hated the universe for playing such a cruel trick. I hated God for His apparent lack of mercy. I was angry beyond words. If this is what faith brought you – faith in medicine, faith in God – then what good was faith?

After Dad passed our Pastor was called and one of the first things my mother said to him was that we were converting to Judaism. When he asked why, she said “because we can never celebrate Christmas again.” She felt much the same way as I did. But, she was not giving up on God altogether – just the holiday. Her faith through those next few days was much stronger than mine and perhaps always has been.

I continued to go through the motions of a good church goer this past year. I still had duties to fulfill as chairman of our Pastor Parish Committee after all. Plus, I had invested nearly my entire life with this particular church. It’s where I grew up and I had many fond memories there. But, my heart was no longer really in it.

Looking back on this past year in church this past Sunday morning though, I had a revelation. We often talk about faith getting us through difficult times. I’m not sure that this is exactly true. Faith doesn’t get you through the difficult times – faith gets us through the times that follow. In moments of crisis there is no time to think and reflect on faith, you can only act and feel. I didn’t reflect on faith or God while Dad was dying. I only thought about how he had suffered, how my family was suffering, and how I was suffering. I did not muse or wax poetic on the meaning of life faith was of no use to me at that time. I prayed, but I prayed from a selfish viewpoint. No matter that most anyone would do the same in that position. The prayer should not have been to save Dad, his faith had already saved him long ago. My prayer should have been to let him transition to the next life peacefully. That was the prayer God answered. I believe that he did transition as peacefully as any of us can, with the aid of kind and caring medical professionals and surrounded by those he loved most and those who loved him most. And I have faith that he was greeted by his Maker with a hearty “well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” and welcomed by all those who went before.

Anger kept me from understanding the real purpose of faith. Faith is a tool for us to understand that there is more to existence than our mere mortal shells. More than can be understood by any person. Faith is what brings us together as communities.  Faith lets us move beyond the mere words of the Gospel and moves us to action.  Faith is what helps us to understand that by caring for each other we are doing the work of God. Faith is what allows us to go beyond logic and reason and reach into the mind of the Infinite.

Faith is what makes us human. Regardless what we think about the stories of Christmas and their accuracy, that’s for the biblical scholars to debate, faith is what Christmas is truly about. Faith is why I can now say without hesitation:

I believe in God.

Merry Christmas, and God bless Us, Every One!