Doug Raraigh had been working as the youth pastor at an Indiana, Pa., church for only a few months when an odd question at a staff meeting rattled his brain.
"We were discussing the Christmas season coming up, and someone said, 'I wonder where we'll find Jesus this year'."
What? What did that mean?
Another staffer quickly filled him in. Each year the church would set up a large outdoor creche -- "very regal looking," he says -- and each year "someone would steal the Baby Jesus."
"The amazing thing was, we would get it back every year."
The nativity scene was slightly larger than lifesize, the swaddled baby, he recalls, as big as "oh, a couple of basketballs." (Yeah, that'd be some miraculous birth.)
Early on, a staffer wrote the church's address on the baby's back, just to be safe. Every year the figurine would disappear, but after a few days, it would turn up, and someone would call or just drop the baby off.
"One year it was a farmer about 20 miles out of town, and he'd found Jesus in the middle of a field."
But Rev. Raraigh (rhymes with "berry") has never lost sight of his original reaction: Not knowing the history that made his colleague's musing literal -- "I wonder where we'll find Jesus this year" -- he heard it metaphorically. He heard it as a spiritual challenge.
"Ever since then, I try to ask myself every Christmas, 'Where will I find Jesus this year?'
"That question was brilliant for me, because it reminds me I need to take the time to search for Jesus."
The stresses of the holiday season can conspire to sap it of its meaning -- to obscure "the reason for the season," as the cliche has it.
Rev. Raraigh, 32, joined the launch of the cliche-busting Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on Pittsburgh's South Side almost a decade ago, but this fall he migrated to Christ Church at Grove Farm in Ohio Township, where on the second Sunday of Advent, he shared his annual challenge of finding the Jesus lost -- or stolen -- each Christmas.
In classic sermon form, he provided an alliterative list -- fatigue, finances, family, fear and "fractured faith" (a two-fer!) -- of the things that steal the "peace on earth" Jesus came to bring.
And there were pro-active remedies to each problem: Fatigue? Do less. Finances? Give only what you can give cheerfully. Family problems? Show love. Fears? Pray for peace (Psalm 34:4). Fractured faith? Don't settle for that -- go looking for Jesus.
In a world that is not so much alliterative as alarming -- with war, terrorism, economic collapse, catastrophic weather, personal enmity and constant disappointment -- where do we find the divine?
The promise of Christmas is that if you go looking for the Christ child, like the Wise Men did, you will find him. And he is love, joy and peace.
But the miracle of Christmas is that God interrupts our everyday routine and comes looking for us. The shepherds were just going about their business "in the fields by night" when suddenly a heavenly host of angels appeared, singing hallelujahs that would make Handel look like a piker.
Maybe we, in addition to seeking after Jesus, can also just be ready for his intrusion into our routine.
My routine for the last five years has, it seems, consisted of non-stop loss. Loss of jobs, income, relationships, stuff, opportunities -- you name it, I've lost it.
Sixteenth months ago, that changed, in ways so constant and specific, I refuse to believe it's coincidence.
But I hit another rough patch in November. My Thanksgiving was not even half-full of thanks.
Then last week, after a stupidly contentious meeting, I returned to my car and found one glove lying on top of it -- one half of the most beautiful pair of leather gloves I will ever own, retrieved no doubt from the sidewalk by some thoughtful soul who spotted its mate on the passenger seat -- and I saw God in that random act of kindness.
And I hear him in the not-at-all-random radio ad (I'm looking at you, Oakmont Bakery!) and in how my daughter retrieved this column, half-done, when the durned computer crashed and ate it.
This could all be wishful thinking, and the angels' visiting the shepherds could have been a hallucination, or fiction.
But once we take that leap, or tiny step, of faith, it's not just our doing, but our willingness to let God do his thing in us, that transforms. It's the back and forth. Seeking and being sought, we draw nearer to him and nearer to each other. Joy to the world!
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org.