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Word origins are often fascinating.  And revealing.

In 1247 a hospital was founded at Bishopsgate, just outside the walls of London.  It was known as the Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is a word that carries powerful, positive associations.  

It is the name of the small Palestinian village where Ruth and David lived during Old Testament times, and where Jesus was born.  For many of us, the mention of Bethlehem triggers memories of Christmas cards and candlelit services on cold December nights.

“Bethlehem” means “House of bread.”  No one knows precisely why. 

But followers of Jesus have always taken note that the Bread of Life came into the world in the House of Bread.

Over the centuries the name of the hospital was slurred by Londoners to “Bethlem.”  It became Europe’s first facility dedicated to treating the mentally ill. 

But Bethlem Royal Hospital, as it came to be known, ultimately became infamous for the horrors inflicted on those who were admitted there.  The “science” of caring for mental illness during the Middle Ages was literally medieval, and Londoners routinely shivered at the sound of screams and wails from the hospital’s open windows. 

As recently as the 1700s people could, for a fee, walk through its dark corridors and gaze at the patients, much as Americans pay to visit contrived haunted houses every year just before Halloween.

With time the name Bethlem morphed again.  People began calling the hospital Bedlam – a word that still describes madness, chaos, and hopelessness. 

Bethlehem became Bedlam.  One of the world’s most positive words devolved into one of the world’s most chilling.

Can semantic evolution be reversed? 

Or to put it another way:  Can our own experiences of confusion and disorder give way to something that inspires hope?

Try this:  Every morning, as you prepare to face the tasks of the day, choose to stop.  Call a halt to everything.  Be still for several minutes. 

Then make this request of God: “Lord, would you please turn whatever feels like bedlam in my life – my relationships, my bank account, my studies, my health – into something that carries the hopefulness of Bethlehem?  And please begin with the noise and confusion of my own heart.”

The One who entered the world so silently at Bethlehem has made this promise: 

We can quietly receive the gift of peace from the Prince of Peace himself.