Twenty-five years ago, I worked on a team that surveyed the Mojave Dessert in preparation for the miles of pipeline buried beneath the orchards. This is a little brag I make every year as I work to straighten our Christmas tree.

Each year the tree needs my expert eye, because it is a bit vertically challenged. We got it in one of those after-Christmas sales. You know, the kind of sale where they take everything they marked up 200 percent before Christmas and cut it by 50 percent after Christmas so you finally pay what the tree was actually worth.

But, this tree is worthless, because it haunches over to one side. I tend to blame it on my wife, who wraps the tree in more lights than Mickey puts in his Light Parade, and she blames me for not reading the assembly directions. But, over the years, I’ve learned how to compensate for the tilt. It all hinges on the star. If I hang the star just right, it serves as a counter weight to keep the tree straight. It always hinges on the star.

The reality this year is we all have a little tilt in our tree. The economy is tilting and our troops are tilting toward war with Iraq. We make a brave effort to deny anyone or anything can take away Christmas, but our tree still seems to be tilting. Is there something we can hang on our Christmas this year that will alleviate the tilt we feel in our souls?

More than 2,000 years ago, a baby served as a counter weight to right a crooked world. Can the baby bring hope again today?

With their cries and their coos, babies have a way of piercing the darkest of nights.

In the hospital, you often hear babies crying, but I know of one particular cry heard by hospital staff one night that had no mixture of cooing.

Labor and delivery nurses reported to Child Services some parents were screaming at their newborn son to stop crying. Withdrawal pains from the alcohol-ingested intrauterine caused this child to herald his arrival to anyone who would answer his cry for help.

The social workers who responded recognized the parents as frequent flyers. Multiple birthing was no problem with this couple, because they did not consider parenting or procreation something to be undertaken in a sober manner. Each time they had a child removed for foster care, the parents replaced it with a new birth.

The parents did not desire reunification or intervention, but since initial reports originated from the hospital, the baby would get mandatory intervention. In fact, it was during an early intervention visit to the home that a social worker observed the boy was “failing to thrive” and needed emergency shelter.

The workers call it failure to thrive because the baby was lethargic and not responding to stimuli. It was the worst case of failure to thrive they had seen, and he was transferred to an emergency foster home and not expected to last the week.

But like one of those thumbnail sponges that responds to moisture by growing 100 times its size, this little boy responded quickly to the love and touch of a caring home. At the end of the week, he no longer needed the intense care of an emergency home, and he was transferred to a wonderful Catholic family for long15 months until a judge terminated the rights of the birth parents and declared him adoptable.

We first heard this story from a social worker 11 years ago when he came to our home during Advent to herald the good news that gave us great joy. Before that year, we had applied to become adoptive parents, and now our Christmas wise man had come to our home in the form of a state social worker to tell us about our new baby boy.

Not long after that meeting, lawn signs and balloons decorated our house as the foster parents tearfully pulled into our driveway. After 20 months of going through the social system, this baby would be a little bigger than most, but had been nourished and fostered by two of the bravest parents I have ever met. As they placed our new son into our arms, I could almost hear their hearts exploding from the loss.

God’s heart must have responded in a similar way as he turned over his son to an adoptive family — Joseph and Mary. But the plan was going to be about a baby — it has always been about a baby — and God sticks to his plans.

Our tree is tilted, our world is changed, but Christmas is still about following the Star of Hope to the Babe of Peace. It is still about following the hopes and dreams that shine from that star to become reincarnated in the heart of every newborn baby.

I’m not into bumper sticker theology, but there is an old bumper sticker that summarizes it best: “Wise men still seek him.”