I love my kids dearly. I want only the best for them. I also want them to sleep a little later in the morning. While some of our friends lament that their young kids wake them up at 8 AM, I am ecstatic if ours make it to 7. For a variety of reasons, sleep has been an effort in our household lately, and I have been awake (or at least out of bed) with my dear children before the sun rises most mornings. In their defense, the sun does sleep pretty late this time of year, but in my defense, it is a rare day in this house for the people who live here to sleep late.

About two weeks ago, we were up before the sun again. The kids and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Right now our ongoing game of let’s-trade-seats-at-the-table-with-each-other has me sitting so that I can see out the window while I eat (thanks, Meg, for taking the one with your back to the outside). As the kids and I sat eating our cereal and discussing their favorite Christmas shows, a faint glow started to peek up over the eastern horizon. We continued with our toast and juice, and the dim glow grew steadily brighter, bursting out in pink and purple and blue. Soon the whole eastern sky was filled with colorful light, dancing on the trees and houses in the horizon and leaping over the thin, wispy clouds floating through the air. Not content with the limits of the eastern sky, the color spilled over, flooding part of the southern sky and tickling the edges of the sky to the north. The sunrise was truly amazing that morning, and watching the whole thing filled me with a great deal of hope. The dark night yielded to the beautiful light of a new day.

I often find myself quietly singing in response to the world around me, and watching the sunrise that morning inspired an Advent-appropriate choice:

The King shall come when morning dawns,

And light triumphant breaks;

When beauty gilds the eastern hills,

And life to joy awakes.

The triumphant break-through of sunlight gilding the eastern sky after a dark night should fill us with joy. The fact that we live in a world where we can count on this every single day – that there is a God who wants this for us every single day – should fill us with tremendous hope. This hope that the light will scatter the darkness is what Advent is all about. Christmas, then, is the sunrise of a new day.

2020 has had its share of dark days. Many people have been sickened with COVID, and far too many have died. For those of us who have extra risk factors like my weakened immune system still recovering from leukemia treatment, doing the right thing to stay healthy has involved its share of dark nights and days. We’ve stayed away from our family and friends (the kids are fluent in video calls and “air huggies” by now). We’ve stayed home (I haven’t driven this little since I got my driver’s permit almost 20 years ago). We’ve ridden the emotional roller coaster of highs and lows (thank goodness the shortage of tissues was less severe than the shortage of toilet paper). There has been darkness. Yet, there has also been hope. There is real hope that the pandemic will not last forever. The sun will rise again. A new day will come.

The world waits in darkness every night. Sometimes the night is very long (such as the nights when I’m awake comforting a toddler who just had a nightmare at 1AM and up again at 3 soothing a preschooler scared of the howling wind). Other times the night passes more quickly (those rare nights where we all sleep through the night). In any case, we wait in darkness a while hoping for the new day, and eventually the dawn comes. The sun climbs up over the horizon, and the light returns. Sometimes that sunrise is a memorable, fantastic light show that dazzles all who can see it. Other times it’s just the return of illumination to the landscape through gray clouds. Regardless, the hope we have in the new day is well-placed.

The COVID night is not over, but the glow of a new day is creeping over the horizon. We already have what we need to wait in the dark – wearing our masks and keeping our social distance – and the light of the new day heralded by a highly effective vaccine is emerging.

Boats and a Helicopter

I have heard a surprisingly large number of people dismiss the vaccine as a hoax or a form of they’re-out-to-get-me-conspiracy-theory-doomsday-device or even a true evil in the world. As I have reflected on these assessments, I am reminded of a modern-day parable that I first heard as a kid.

There was a woman who made the bold decision to rely entirely on prayer for everything. God would give her whatever she needed, so long as she asked. Her faith was unshakable and would stand up to any test.

One night, she awoke to find her house flooding. The nearby river was swelling from the heavy rain, and her house was quickly going underwater. She managed to climb out her bedroom window to the roof, barely staying above the rising flood waters. On the roof and still faithful, she prayed to God to save her from the flood. A few minutes later, a neighbor in a row boat paddled close to her house and asked her to get in the boat with him. She politely told the neighbor no. She did not need a rowboat. She had prayed, and God would save her from the flood. Puzzled, the neighbor paddled away to help someone else.

Alone again in the dark, she prayed to God to save her from the flood. A minute later, she saw lights approaching. It was a motor boat with two firefighters inside, and they came near her house. Seeing her on the roof, the firefighters steered their boat close and asked her to get into the boat. They would help her climb down the steep roof to avoid slipping into the rushing flood waters. She told them to save someone else; God would save her from the flood. The firefighters were reluctant to leave her, but at her repeated insisting and refusal to get into the boat, they finally departed to look for others.

Alone another time with the flood water continuing to rise, the woman prayed confidently to God, asking her to save him from the flood waters. Within seconds of finishing the prayer, the sounds of a helicopter could be heard. It was a rescue helicopter, operated by the national guard, who were out attempting to save people from the flood. The crew saw the woman on the roof and hovered over her, dropping a rescue line and sending down a trained crewman to pull her from the roof, which by now was nearly covered in floodwater. The woman outright refused to be rescued by the helicopter crew, insisting adamantly that God would save her from the flood waters and that she was trusting in Him alone. The crew should rescue someone else, she insisted. God would rescue her. In spite of the water now touching her ankles and the pleading of the helicopter crew to grab the line, the woman would not budge from the roof. She flatly refused, continuing to insist that God alone would save her from the flood. The crew received a call of another person stuck on a nearby roof and finally relented to the woman’s demands, leaving her alone.

Soon after the helicopter left, the woman was swept into the flood waters, where she drowned. She found herself standing in front of God in Heaven. She looked at God and said, “God, I made the firm commitment to rely only on you. I prayed to you in my time of great need just now in that flood. Where were you on the roof down there? Why didn’t you save me like you promised me you would?” 

God looked at her and replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

I am not entirely sure where I heard this parable originally, but I think of it quite often. The answers to our prayer aren’t always dramatic miracles. We don’t always walk on the top of the flood waters. Sometimes God sends us a boat with a friend inside. Sometimes even if we ignore that boat, He’ll try again by sending another boat or even a helicopter to save us from the floods of life. Sometimes, like the woman on the roof, we overlook the help we’ve asked for more than once. There are times for miracle rescues, and there are times for simple row boats to escape life’s floods. It’s important for us to remember that God uses the ordinary for the extraordinary.

I have seen the boats-and-a-helicopter rescue happen in my own life. I did not have a scientifically-unexplainable miraculous cure to my hairy cell leukemia. What I did have, though, was the row boat of a well-timed routine family doctor blood test followed by a motorboat driven by a persistent hematologist and then a helicopter crew of rare disease specialists, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, lab technicians, and many others who pulled me from the flood waters of cancer. God heard my prayer to be saved from the rooftop when my body was flooded with non-functioning white blood cells and sent these seemingly everyday boats and helicopters to answer those prayers. I call that an ‘ordinary miracle.’

The world is now trying to escape the rising floodwaters of the COVID pandemic. Wearing our masks and keeping distance from each other is how we’re climbing to our rooftops to stay above the water. There are boats and a helicopter coming to rescue us, and we better know them as the vaccines. Yes, the vaccines are human-made, and yes humans are imperfect beings that make mistakes. However, it’s unfair for us to assume that just because something was made by humans that God can’t also use it as the answer to a prayer of need. The row boat, motor boat, and helicopter from the parable are made by humans. When we’re on the roof surrounded by rising flood waters, should we really be telling our neighbor that we don’t trust their row boat because they haven’t used it in a flood before or arguing with the firefighters about whether or not the horsepower of the motor on their motorboat is powerful enough to fight the current or lecturing the national guard crew about how the internet says that their helicopter is actually a tool of an extraterrestrial spy agency that will cause anyone who touches it to turn into a purple mongoose on their 37th birthday or the next time Jupiter and Saturn appear close together in the sky, whichever comes first? Of course not. We should do what the woman in the parable did not do. We should get in the row boat or the motorboat or the helicopter when we have the chance to escape the flood. In the flood of this pandemic, we need to get the vaccine as soon as we are able so that we can all get off of the roof.

There is a real temptation for us humans to tell God how things should be done. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, projecting our own assumptions on how God should answer our prayers – such as if I would have demanded nothing short of a miracle healing to my hairy cell leukemia – is incredibly belittling of God. Who are we to tell Him how to answer our prayers? Who is in control? Shouldn’t we let God be God in the way God wants to be God? We need to remember that this is the same God who opted to be born in a barn and to die a literally excruciating death for us. Would any of us humans, even our smartest throughout history, have thought that was the right idea to answer humanity’s prayers for salvation from darkness? If God wants to rescue us from the flood in a leaky rowboat, who are we to stand there and demand a yacht?

If God wants to rescue us from the flood in a leaky rowboat, who are we to stand there and demand a yacht?

When we’re sitting in the dark, sometimes it’s hard to imagine what all we can see in the daylight. We need the sun to come up to show us new possibilities. This time of year invites us to think beyond the darkness of the present moment. Advent reminds us that even when we wait in the night, there is reason to hope. The dawn of true light is coming. Christmas reminds us that this light has come into the world. As one of my favorite Advent and Christmas readings says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.

Let us not constrain God by thinking that those made in His image cannot also be the instrument of His answering prayer. We must not fall into the temptation of thinking technology invented by humans is automatically evil. He empowered us to invent helicopters and vaccines, both of which were created to save people rather than harm them. Let us also avoid thinking that the darkness around us will always be there. The light is coming, and we should not let go of that hope. Let’s all keep praying for God to rescue us and that we not be too blind to see the answer to that prayer when it arrives. We need to get in the boat when we can so that we can float to safety from the flood. Finally, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, let’s remember that true hope came into the world in an ordinary manger. As in times of old, we continue to pray:

Come quickly, King of kings.

Our hope is in You.