Person to Person
Text: Titus 2:14: “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Over these last weeks of the fall I’ve been reading a book by our neighbor, Dr. Gawande—his most recent book, Being Mortal. You may know his work; he is, at least to me, our generation’s most eloquent and most elegant writer on matters of medicine, and you can often read his essays in The New Yorker.
Being Mortal is a different sort of book for Dr. Gawande. Over a career of writing he has pretty much focused his attention on opening for us mere mortals the mysteries of how doctors do their work in today’s incredibly technologically advanced hospital. He’s written about how doctors are trained, and how they make mistakes, and how they design ways of working to minimize their mistakes. He is a wise, deeply informed, beautifully articulate observer of a profession that sooner or later touches all of us.
But as I say, this book is different. In reading it I was struck by the thought that Dr. Gawande wrote it to share with us a discovery he has made, a discovery so profound that if it were fully grasped it might actually change the way doctors work, the way they are trained, even the way our how health-care system is structured.
That discovery—are you sitting down?—is that people turn out to be more than medical puzzles for doctors to solve. And there is another discovery related to this that is equally incredible: No matter what medicine does, no matter what procedures the doctors invent to offer us or inflict on us, no matter what—the human condition is that we are all mortal. And there is more to making meaning out of our lives than simply being alive.
I am being more than a little unfair to Dr. Gawande’s book; it is a very fine book. But seeing the question from the perspective of the church, especially seeing it through the lens of the story of this holy night, it’s a little hard not to smile a little bit on closing the book, just wondering what took him so long to figure this out. After all, this is the basic truth that lies at the very heart of the purpose of faith.
What Dr. Gawande ends up arguing is that we get a lot farther toward the goal of actually healing human beings, rather than just addressing medical puzzles, when the relationship is not between a doctor and a patient, not between a technician and a problem, but between two actual people. Healing people doesn’t only mean treating them as whole human beings; it means bringing your whole human self into the conversation, and not just your training.
So now perhaps you will see why Being Mortal is, at least for me, a near-perfect Christmas book. Because the message we are trying to convey to the whole world, this discovery we have made about how God works, is pretty much the same discovery Dr. Gawande makes about how people work.
The medical form of that discovery is this: People are more than medical problems; we have lives in which our purpose is to make meaning, to know love, to experience beauty, to be connected to other human beings. We can hurt ourselves. We have bodies that are frail and that ultimately die. And to best understand what medicine can do for us our doctors need to begin, and not end, by meeting us on our own ground—by meeting us as a person to a person.
The spiritual form of that discovery is almost the very same thing: People are more than individual, disconnected atoms; we have lives in which our purpose is to make meaning, to know love, to experience beauty, to have some sense of the possibility of the sacred, of the transcendent. We can hurt ourselves, both body and soul. We have bodies that are frail and that ultimately die. And to best understand how to get our attention and connect with us, God ultimately figured out to begin, and not end, by meeting us on our own ground—by meeting us person to person.
Folks, that is the point of Christmas.
Now, when you deal with the doctor, you know that the doctor has an agenda for you, no matter how old you are, no matter how sick you are, no matter how much you think you do or don’t need the doctor’s advice. The doctor, at least any doctor worth going to, doesn’t just want to fix you; the doctor wants to change you, to change your habits or your lifestyle or your stress level so that you will be healthier, and therefore a happier person.
This year when I went for my annual physical I showed up having kept off a bunch of weight I’d lost before the last physical. And do you know what? The doctor thanked me. I am not kidding. He thanked me! Now do you think I would ever dare to go back for a physical weighing more than I do now?
The Christmas promise is that it is the very same with God. The little baby in the manger is not just a sweet Hallmark story. That little baby in the manger has been brought forth in the worst, the most unsanitary of circumstances by a desperately frightened young girl. The baby in the manger is dirty and messy, and in danger—and vulnerable. And the little baby in the manger is mortal.
The man that child will become will live this life of ours fully and completely, will know the same pain, the same joy, the same grief, the same confusion, the same wonder—and the same death.
The amazing, confusing, impossible, but plain truth about this night is that this is how God chooses, willingly chooses, to finally deal with us—with you. And just like the doctor, you know that when you deal with God, God has an agenda for you—no matter how old you are, no matter how sick you are, no matter how much you think you do or don’t need God.
God—at least any God worth believing in—doesn’t just want to fix you; the God wants to change you, to change your habits or your lifestyle or your stress level so that you will be healthier, and therefore a happier person.
There are two parts to that agenda. The first one you might have heard on the radio this morning. One of the local public radio stations did an hour long segment on the power of gratitude—on the practice of living from a perspective of giving thanks rather than getting stuff. God has been trying to nudge you all along in that direction. Now science says it makes you happier and healthier, too. Well, okay; you can believe it because the scientists say it.
We’ve been saying that for a good long time. Eight hundred or so years ago, Meister Eckhart taught that the only prayer you really only ever need is-—are you ready?—“thank you.” Thank you. That’s it; do that often enough and, believe me, your life really will change.
That’s one. Here’s the other: God is really hoping that one of the ways we’ll figure out how to say thank you is by hanging out more with each other. By spending more time together. These people around you, this family, these friends, this community, this place that witnesses and works to try to represent a God that loves us so much as to meet us on our own ground—no matter what you might get under the tree tomorrow, this is the most precious gift you have.
So give thanks. Stick together. Sing loud. God has come to meet us person to person. These folks are the best chance you’ll have of making that meeting. Merry Christmas. Amen.