Our Christmas Star

By December 21, 2020, you would have to have been living under a rock to have not heard about “The Christmas Star.”  Well, I sort of had.  Been living under a rock, that is.  The rock of living in ICU for a few days.  

The convergence of Jupiter and Saturn was on my radar, so to speak, but by the time the day arrived, I had almost forgotten.  Then, a friend asked if I was going to look for “The Christmas Star.”  Yes, I thought. Yes.  I will see it.

My teenagers were both home, a lucky by-product of a near-death experience and the pandemic.  We could go see it as a family.  We planned to leave the house around 6:45 p.m. and drive to my husband’s office parking deck–the office he had only visited maybe a dozen times since March, mostly to check his mail.  

As the sky darkened a little after 6:00 p.m., we noticed we had grossly miscalculated sunset and we needed to look immediately, or we might miss it.  My husband logged out of his computer and the girls made some quick hot chocolate for the ride. We waved goodbye to the dog who is no longer used to being alone.  After winding all the way up to the top of the deck, we were disappointed to realize that skyscrapers foiled our brilliant plan.  

So, we jumped back in the car–some of us more nimbly than others.  We started driving West, to the other side of the city, in pursuit of a large parking lot with an unobstructed view.  Somewhere between Peachtree and Howell Mill Road, we became obsessed with our quest.  “I need to see it,” said my seventeen-year-old, a little weaker than usual.  

“Me too,” I very honestly answered.  

Her little sister, our “Holiday Mix” DJ, claimed she would be just as happy seeing Christmas lights and was “not that into astronomy.”  

Big sis replied with what I could hear was a wry smile in her voice,” Well, I want to see it and I almost died.”  We had already started a running tally of how many times she will say that over the course of her life.  A lot, I imagine.  But, for now we are still finding the humor in her attempts to turn it into something light.

Even my husband, God love him (and I do too), who usually isn’t game for my schemes and plans, piped up, “I want to see it too.”

We needed it.  If our year was condensed into numbers, it would compute to something like this: One trip to the ER.  Two deaths in the family.  Three X-ray angles to show two broken vertebra.  Four days in the hospital, including two nights in ICU.  Five types of specialists seen for four separate major medical issues.  And that was all before the three firemen in the kitchen three days before Christmas.  Our year in numbers would also have an excess of 5,000 points logged in a running family Spades game, seven nights in the mountains with no Wi-Fi, and countless meals together.  We just wanted to add two planets converging into one hopeful star on the plus side of our 2020 balance sheet. 

“I think we need to go to the interstate,” I heard from the backseat.

“I agree,” I heard from the driver’s seat.

Suppertime was coming and I assumed grumbling stomachs would put an end to our adventure.  I was glad I was wrong, and to find out that we all wanted, no, needed, to see the star this much.  Hope.  That is what we were searching for.  Hope and promise.

I kept my mouth shut about how fast we were going–after all, maybe I just hadn’t been in a car much the last week. My nerves were frayed and I had to admit anything over 40 seemed too fast.  We sped down I-85, going Southwest, anticipating a perfect clear view on this cloudless night.  

Approaching the airport we saw plenty of possibilities.  One after another, they blinked or moved and showed themselves to be planes. Then, we saw something unusual.  It was a small horizontal line made up of two dots that blended into a pink-hued beige.

It wasn’t what we were expecting–not at all.  Jesus wasn’t either, and he still isn’t. He wasn’t political, and to this day defies partisan bickering no matter which side of the aisle claims him.  He wasn’t judgmental, unless he was criticizing the Pharisees who weaponized their piety.  He identifies with the foreigner, the oppressed, and the religious minority.

If we truly believe who we say he is, then we must respect that we can’t box him in to our own little human belief system, which is not necessarily bad.  If “Christian” is of Christ, then who am I to say who is and isn’t and what is and isn’t?  We better hope he is bigger than we can comprehend, because we need him to be.  

One more thing we sometimes forget is this: Jesus also will meet us where we are.  In Mark chapter nine, a father brings his son to Jesus for healing.  Like many of us, the father is struggling with faith. “Lord, I believe!  Help my unbelief!” he exclaims.  I can relate to that. We will never know the full extent of their conversation, but we do know that these words were met with compassion, and the son was healed and restored.

When my daughter’s scheduled, somewhat routine surgery had taken a horrifying turn post-operatively, and her blood oxygen levels as measured by a pulse oximeter plummeted to 61%, my prayers were incoherent.  “God. God. Please. Please.”  Sometimes the words weren’t even formed in my mind but were just a desperate fear.  I may work for a faith-based organization, but I have a confession to make–my faith isn’t always that faithful.  Especially in that moment.  It was panicked and terrified and primal.  

I have met enough IoH families to admire the peace and hope they project, and I have attended enough church to know how I should react.  But I didn’t.  An observer may have seen my stillness and mistaken it for strength, but really, I was frozen with abject terror. 

Guilt that I had not known the signs, dismay we had even pursued this stupid surgery (what good is a jaw that can finally close without pain if it is about to be open and intubated?), and fear–so much fear.  That is what was going through my head instead of any shred of faith. 

Of course I believe in God.  How can we look to the oceans or heavens or even to the tiniest insects of the earth and not believe in the sovereignty of a magnificent Creator?  But belief in God doesn’t always equal the kind of faith we are called to have in order to walk through each day with hope and purpose. 

In those immediate moments, and in the days that followed, I was carried by others.  My aunt, an internist, stayed on the phone with me for two hours during the crisis and until we were safely in ICU. Her wife, a retired nurse, called my husband to keep him updated and calm.  They walked with me through every x-ray, vital sign, medicine change, doctor’s rounds, and test the next three days. Just the fact that I had them to call on is a miracle that should never be taken for granted–we did not know them until three years ago, when my dad, who was adopted, found his biological family.  

All my family–old, and new, and the kind you choose, reached out.  I know they must have been praying for me, in whatever way they personally pray.  And though my faith was lacking, Jesus met me just like he met like the father of the boy in Mark chapter nine.  I won’t delve into theology that parses the intersection of God and science, but I will simply say that I am grateful my baby came home.  With all her big personality, requests for frogs as a “second chance at life gift,” and a convincing argument as to why her amphibian-averse little sister should care for them once college comes next Fall.  

I will express that gratitude through prayer, and not forget all the other things I was given for which to be thankful.

Through people and their kindnesses, I received gifts to help my unbelief.  There were nurses who snuck me a prohibited hug.  The PA who stood at the foot of the bed in silence and compassion with us, for several minutes, when we decided pain management was too tricky due to all the anesthesia complications.   A unit director allowed me to stay in my daughter’s ICU room, Covid rules be damned, and moved equipment in order to fit a reclining chair.  My husband, not allowed to be with us due to pandemic visitor policy, let me break down for as long as it took as soon as we were alone together.  Not to mention the texts, emails, phone calls, flowers,  lunch dates each day for my younger daughter, balloons, food, gifts, offers to help in any way, carpools, and much, much more from all my people.  I couldn’t do those three long nights myself, but God made sure everyone around me could.  And, each of those acts kept me going and bolstered my faith.

Maybe the pinkish beige line we saw on December 21st wasn’t Jupiter and Saturn.  That’s ok too.  We were together, listening to Christmas music, healing from our hard year, and as we looked for the hope and promise we so desperately wanted, we were shown yet another something that helped our unbelief.  And that is enough–it is all we need for each day.

Angie Howell is constantly inspired by the people she meets in the Inheritance of Hope family.  Her connection to IoH goes back to Davidson College, where she met Kristen Grady Milligan the first week of their freshman year. Kristen eventually started Inheritance of Hope with her husband Deric, and Angie heard about their work at a college reunion.  In 2010, the two former hallmates got back in touch, and Angie became involved in IoH shortly afterwards. She has served as a Legacy Retreat volunteer, Coordinator, and now, as Communications Manager, Angie helps tell the stories of IoH.  Read more Inheritance of Hope blogposts >>