Eulogy for A Beast: Life & Death at the Feet of the Master

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Pulling out of my driveway I felt my tires roll over something. I noticed it lacked that dispersive crunching sound common to toys under the tire. Outdoor toys typically have exoskeletons. This felt soft and intact. When I turned to see what it was my heart sank. Ringo was lying on his side, his little legs stretched wide and vulnerable and unrelaxed.

I jumped out of my truck and ran to him. He was alive and focused, straining with all his will to fill his crushed lungs with air. Every ten or so seconds he would choke down a hiccup-full. He was too focused on trying to breath to acknowledge my presence. I bet that broke his heart.


For the last 14 years Ringo has lived to acknowledge my presence. I found him in late winter, 2004, only weeks before Jesus found me. I was walking into church, hungover, and looked down to see a small torpedo launching up to my chest. I told my mother if he were still here when we left I was taking him home. I found him that afternoon outside the church doors, much in the way Jesus found me a few weeks later. We both took in strays that year. I guess it was early spring.

Before he lost his hearing, he would hear my presence before I ever entered the door, where I would find him already waiving at me with his tail. Even after he lost his hearing I often found him there, waiting and waving, who knows for how long. If he didn’t greet me at the door, the moment I walked into his field of vision he would perk up his big square head, struggle up with his little old legs, and carry his big long body over to my feet.

There were two places Ringo lived: on his blanket by the wood stove and at my feet. While I was gone he would lay on his blanket by the stove. While at home he would sit at my feet when I sat, stand at my feet when I stood, and follow my feet when I walked. Sometimes I would acknowledge his presence, often I would not. But he never took it personally. He never repaid neglect for neglect, evil for evil. He was always more Christian of a dog than I am a man. 

On average I probably stepped on or tripped over Ringo about once a week, sometimes responding apologetically, other times erupting volcanically, depending on my mood. But he was always forgiving of my mistakes and remorseful under my wrath, always showing deference to my judgment, whether just or unjust, whether I treated him like the family dog or my personal scapegoat. Regardless, nothing I ever did or didn’t do diverted his good will toward me. He was unwavering, a far more principled dog than I am a man. But I suppose to him I was more than a man. I was his master. And he lived to affirm me as such. He lived to sit at my feet.

When God created Ringo he used only one substance: one hundred percent pure, undiluted loyalty. His form, however, was not as pure as his substance. He was an admixture of odd proportions, the body of a wiener dog, the head of a pit bull, and the howl of a Canaanite. But shapes and sizes aside, his substance was sure. He had the pure and undivided heart of a saint—until I broke it in two with my truck.


Now he lay there, divided, no doubt wishing he could acknowledge my presence in this rare moment I was acknowledging his with such undivided attention. I was more present to him in that moment than I had ever been in his 98 dog-year-old life, with my face pressed gently on his neck, my hands stroking his head, as I told him over and over how sorry I was and how good of a dog he was. But it took all the energy he had just to live, to keep breathing straw-fulls of breath. So he just couldn’t acknowledge my presence—he was hardly able even to acknowledge his own.

I was torn. I didn’t know what to do or what he would want me to do. I wanted so badly to assure him that he had done nothing wrong, that I was not displeased with him, that I did not hurt him on purpose, that he was a good dog and I was a bad master. I wanted him to know that this was not the intent of my will toward him; but it was the fault of my will, my reckless and wayward will, and I was so sorry. Ringo deserved a better master than the one I proved to be in the end. I wanted him to know that I had failed in my responsibilities to take care of him, but that I have a Master who has not failed, and that the Master who gave me dominion over him would return in the end to take his dominion back, to fix this broken world and Ringo’s broken heart. I wanted him to know that on that day I will join Ringo’s side and we’ll sit together at our Master’s feet.

I wanted to assure him of all this but I think I was just making it worse. I think I was just consoling myself and prolonging his suffering, if not adding to it with my disquietedness, if not making him feel guilty, like he was failing me. He probably felt he was not giving me the honor and attention I deserved, which he spent his whole life giving me—despite the fact that I never deserved it.  

Making the decision to kill Ringo was not the hardest decision I had to make—I wanted his suffering to end immediately. The hardest decision was leaving him to fetch my log-splitting axe from the woodshed, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house and the dog warm. I knew I had to end his suffering but I hated to leave him for even a second. He proved his whole life that he valued my presence more than his comfort, especially in these latter years as he limped around in my shadow, doing his best to keep up with someone 62 years his younger (when you do the dog-math). I wanted to give him the gift of my presence as far as I could possibly extend it into that void which takes all presence away. I tried to yell for Keldy to grab my axe, but she was inside putting the kids down for a nap and couldn’t hear me. So I told him again how good of a dog he was, how sorry I was, and that I would be right back. I ran as fast as I could to the woodshed, cursing the day, damning the divisions in my heart and the one in Ringo’s too.  

I returned in a matter of seconds and knelt again as before, cheek to cheek, doing my best to embrace him without adding more pain to his sadness and suffering. I told him again how sorry I was, how good of dog he was, and that I loved him so much. He gasped again, probably trying to tell me how sorry he was—though he had done nothing wrong—and how good of a master I was—though he deserved much better—and that he loved me too. He was probably trying to tell me he forgave me for running him over with my truck and for now having to kill him, for he knows I often know not what I do. He had never once held a grudge against or withheld his forgiveness from me. As far as I could tell, he had never kept a record of wrongs against anyone. He loved more like my Master than any man I’ve ever met. 

I put my hands under his head and hips and pulled him off the edge of the driveway into a bed of pine needles as gently as I could, leaving a crimson smear against the black surface and all over my unclean hands. He winced subtly, his eyes widening in acknowledgment of a more acute moment of pain. I winced too. I wanted to scream, I wanted to breath fire, I wanted to pour out my wrath on sin and death and suffering, I wanted to punish the darkness with searing light and the silence with shattering thunder. But I kept quiet. I didn’t want to add any more panic to the moment already wrapping around Ringo’s thick copper neck, shortening his breath in the long dawn of night. So I told him one last time that I was so, so sorry, that he had done nothing wrong, that he was such a good dog, that none of this was his fault, that I’m the guilty one, that it was because of my divided heart that his was now broken, that his blood was forever on my hands. I felt it would take no less than hellfire to burn the stain off my hands, or perhaps burn my hands off the stain. [At least it felt like that in the moment. It’s wearing off. The heart is fickle. Pilate’s basin will do.]

Ringo, like all the beasts of the field, would have to die because I willed him to death, because I willed the death of all things. God entrusted his creaturely world to human care, and we turned on God and on each other and on all God’s critters and creatures. We were created to be God-reflecting masters of a good garden world (Gen. 1-2) but became blood-thirsty tyrants of a shadowy desert wasteland (Gen. 3-rest of the Bible). All of our creation companions now rightly live in the “fear and dread” of us (Gen. 9:2), most species simply keeping a safe distance from us, preferring flight over fight unless backed into a corner. But one species above the rest has not allowed their fear of our dominion to drive them to rebel against it. They insist on acknowledging our presence as the presence of royalty, humbly moving toward us, bowing before us, sitting at our feet. They can still perhaps see reflections, refractions rather, of Light splintering through us from the shadows that come out of us. Ringo seemed only to see my God-given light as though I were its source, as though I weren’t its eclipse. So he trusted me, his master, with his life. But I betrayed him, the most loyal of all God’s creatures. He entrusted his life to me and I ensnared him in my death. 

If I’d had a means of killing him quickly without releasing him from my arms I would have used it, but I had nothing of the sort. I hated having to withdraw my presence from him, but I had no choice. I had to forsake him of my presence to end the presence of his suffering, the only presence he would ever know again until he knew none at all. So he had to die alone, at the hand of his master, who stood away from him, against him, at arm’s length. I kissed him on the mouth, like Judas, snapped back like a rattlesnake coiling up to strike, and in a storm of fury I sent all my rage at that godforsaken moment through the broad side of my log-splitting axe into the left side of my loyal dog’s head, condemning him to the death I deserve, the death I created.

His legs dropped, his body relaxed, and his life ended where it longed to live forever—at my feet.

I dropped to my knees and put one hand over his heart and the other over my face–the moment was naked and I was ashamed. Now that I was certain he was no longer aware of my presence, that I could add no more pain and unrest to his life, I opened my mouth and filled my neighborhood with a curse. Mark says that when Jesus died he “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mk. 15:37). There are things that should be said near the point of death if at all possible—things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and “I love you.” But perhaps something must be said at the point of death itself, at death itself, and perhaps that can only come out as a loud cry or a groaning, or thundering, curse. That is what love sounds like at death. Love hates death with a Passion. Love screams at death. Love “casts Death and Hades into the lake of fire” with unrelenting wrath and inexorable fury (Rev. 20:14). Love condemns death as the unforgivable sin.


I used to imagine Jesus sitting silently at the right hand of God until he returns. I don’t anymore. I think he is screaming. I think all of heaven is raging against human sin and death in a loud, grinding battle cry, first heard from the cross, which will not cease until Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven to give form to his thunder in a bolt of Light that strikes death in a merciless command of life:

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command…and the dead in Christ will be first to rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).

I think Ringo will hear that command. I don’t know if all dogs go to heaven—who am I to judge?—but I believe Ringo will. I was Ringo’s master. If I have any say in whom or what Jesus raises from the dead when he returns I suppose it would be limited to those creatures over whom he gave me dominion. As Ringo’s master, therefore, I want to hereby make an appeal for his life. I want to confess that I was never fit to be another creature’s master, much less such a good and faithful one as he, and plead with God to take back the dominion he gave me over Ringo in the first place and give it to Jesus, who is fit to be Ringo’s Master, my Master, Master of all. In my kingdom, everything ends up dying because of my reckless and wavering will. I get it. I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to be king anymore. I want a Master who can keep the world alive, the garden alive, Ringo alive, life alive.

If God’s grace brings resurrection to the sinners he loves, should we not expect it also brings resurrection to those creatures most loyal to the sinners he loves? He’s the one who created them, no doubt to teach us something about loyalty and unconditional love, about friendship and humility and forgiveness and joy and trust. Most every dog I’ve ever met knows more about all of the above than any human I’ve ever met. Besides, innocent dogs in heaven makes more sense than sinful sinners in heaven, so I’ll keep looking forward to a reunion with that great cloud of K9s who will no doubt lead the way in showing us how to properly live at our Master’s feet when he returns. 


So we corralled the boys and Sissy together for a “family meeting.” My children have never known life without Ringo. He was part of the reality into which they each were received, an odd but delightful part of the family. Ringo, on the other hand, had known life without my children, a life where he got far more loving attention and far less physical abuse. But he was raised in the south and had the gift of hospitality. He never repaid horsey rides with doggy bites. I was actually a little concerned about how he would react to the kids at first, because he did once kill our neighbor’s (evil) goat, but he proved to be discerning. He knew the difference between the children and the goats, and the closest he ever came to biting my children was licking the sticky off their faces.  

Our tone was lower and our herding efforts more firm and focused than usual. They kept asking what we were doing and why we were meeting, and we kept not answering. We eventually got them all seated on the couch in the living room, where Ringo could usually be found if he weren’t found at my feet. It was the place his presence could be felt most, and now, therefore, his absence, which already had begun to swell out of proportion to the limited spaces his presence formerly inhabited: in the heaviness on my face, the cracking of my voice, and, indeed, the loneliness at my feet. It’s as though a creature’s body veils an essence that is only fully disclosed after it is broken, after it is dead and gone. Only then the veil is torn, releasing the true nature of the life represented in the body, the life now dead in the body. I kill a mosquito and it is gone. I kill my dog and he begins to haunt me, his absence more revealing than his presence. A centurion kills a Man and God begins to haunt him. Out of His absence comes the terrifying confession in a shower of water and blood (Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39). 

I told them I had some really sad news to share with them: “Ringo died today.” A breathless look of surprise contorted each of the boys’ faces and was followed by three distinct responses: Maccabee (3) trying to comfort me and touch my face, Ryser (4) asking troubled and heavy questions about Ringo’s death and the nature of death itself, and Kezek (6) entering the ebb and flow of those initial impact waves of grief, wavering between questioning incredulity and wailing sorrow. I stumbled over words trying to respond, Keldy helping, clarifying, filling in the blanks as I would get choked up. It’s hard to watch your children’s first real concrete encounter with death. I think Kezek and Ryser both encountered death yesterday. It brushed against Ryser’s mind and pierced Kezek’s heart. I think it was once removed from Maccabee. He encountered it by way of my grief, his compassion for me shielding him from too direct an encounter. But each of their responses only took me deeper into my own encounter, because I knew the death of their first dog would be their first step toward discovering the death of all dogs, all people, all the living, including each of them and the ones they’ve shared their life and presence with from birth.

I told them we would now have to say goodbye to Ringo and bury him in the backyard, between the garden and the briar patch. Keldy had wrapped Ringo in his blanket and I had laid him at the edge of the garden next to one adult- and three kid-sized shovels so the boys could help dig. I uncovered the intact side of Ringo’s face so the boys could pet him one last time. I tried to press Ringo’s eyes shut, but they insisted on staying open. I think he was still trying to acknowledge my presence.

We laid him in the hole with his only two toys, which he had paid little attention to in the last few years, and an old pair of my shoes, where all his attention had been paid, especially in these last few years. When the boys asked why I put my shoes in the hole with Ringo I told them because he lived his whole life to sit at my feet and I wanted him to stay there forever. And then they heard their father weep like they had never heard before and all three climbed in my lap to console me. Kezek wept with me.

death, lifeAs we began shoveling dirt into the hole Radley (1) began saying “Baaaaah” (Southern for “Bye”) over and over, matter-of-factly.  Once the hole returned to ground level, the green ground now marked with a big brown scar, I told the boys I needed them to help me make a cross. We went to the woodshed and picked out a long red cedar branch I hadn’t yet cut for kindling. I cut it in two unequally sized pieces and notched each to be fitted into the other. Each boy helped me secure the crossbeam using one decking screw a piece—they pressed the trigger while I held the drill. We then returned to the gravesite to stake a claim on Ringo’s life. I dug a narrow hole and poured a half bag worth of leftover concrete down to the bottom. I used the broad side of my log-splitting axe to hammer down the cross as deep as it would go until it began splintering at the top, the same one I use to split the wood to burn the fire to keep the house warm.


I told the boys we were marking Ringo’s grave with a cross because the cross reveals to us what is on the other side of death, so we need not live in fear of death. I continued along those lines, weaving the moment into the Big Story of death and life using two kinds of thread, one made of dreams, the other of visions: dreams of a Garden in the world and visions of the world as a Garden. Probably a little less wordy but something like:

Death does not belong in God’s original or final intent for the world, for us. God created the earth to become a garden planet, wholly good and void of death, void of thistles and thorns. He gave it to us as a gift and blessed us to fill it and keep it and care for it, to expand the garden wherever we went. But we did not take good care of it. We have buried his blessing in a curse, filling the earth with thickets of pain. Under our dominion, the garden has gone to seed. We need a new Master to restore the garden–and God has sent One to us. 

Jesus came to earth carrying the dominion of heaven in his Person (Mt. 3:2; Mk. 1:15), which he revealed to be a servant-shaped dominion (Phil. 2:6-11). The Master ruled by crawling under the table, down there with the dinner crumbs and the dog hair, and washing his servants’ feet (Jn. 13:1-17). He ruled by allowing the will of his Father in heaven for all creation rule over the self-preserving creaturely will he had inherited from the womb (Lk. 22:42; cf. Rom. 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:21). And so he was crowned with a braided halo of flightless thorns and buried in a garden tomb, in which the thorns remained buried but from which he was raised to life. Mary mistook him for a Gardener—it was no mistake. The Master Gardener just had to go underground to lay the axe at the root of creation’s curse, that ground-grown will to be like god apart from God (Gen. 3:5), so that God could raise him from the ground as the “firstfruits” of new creation (1 Cor. 15:20,) indeed the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). God has made a fertile womb of this barren world. 

So we are living between the times, between God’s age-old creation and brand-new creation, between Friday’s night and Sunday’s morning, where the thorns touch the Garden, where death is the conclusion to life. But death is only the conclusion to life under our rule, creation under our rule, where men crucify their God and run over their dog. We too must learn to long for the death of our wayward, willful rule, for all creation to be born again under the will of God. But we can, we must, be born again even today, because God is present to us now, in the in-between, to all who call on the Name of Jesus, the One who has come, the One who is coming back–his Name is God’s number (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). To all who offer up their dominion to him, who cast their crown at his feet and confess that Jesus is Master, God has sent a downpour of his Spirit to begin washing away the deadroots of the curse entangling our hearts and restoring the blessing of heaven (cf. Acts 2). When he returns, he will finish what he started, burning off the dross of our ground-rule estates and welcoming us back from below up into the Garden–under his rule–the dirt as it is in Heaven. 

So although death is a fact of life, it is not the fact of life. Jesus is the Fact of life, and he has made a Way to Life right through the heart of death, through the cross. Jesus died on a cross but came out fully alive on the other side of death, never to die again. Death, then, is not, as Shakespeare once described, that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” It has been discovered, traversed, exited and exiled. Jesus has gone before us all to come after us all, entering the all-consuming abyss to fill it with his all-consuming fire, with a Light from which no black-holed void can escape, a Life too big for death to stomach. He has travelled into the unbounded depths of the distant country to “bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom for the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isa. 61:1).

So Jesus enters death not simply that we might return to the life from which we came, where we remain masters of a wilderness wasteland, but that he might lead us out the other side into a new Life, fully alive, never to die again, because it is a life defined and defended by a Good and True and Perfect Master, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Creator and Life-Giver himself. He was buried in our prickly crown, the blessing of heaven sown into the curse of the earth (cf. Gen. 3:17), so that our dominion could be put to death once and for all and his kingdom could blossom to life without end. Until then, we stake a cross at the sharp edge of life’s end, between death and Life, between the thorns and the Garden, because we believe that though death is the end of life, Jesus is the end of death.

We must not, then, wish for Ringo to return. We must wait for Christ to return. Lazarus returned and had to die again. When Jesus returns death will have to die again–and we’ll all celebrate our birthday on Easter.  

I also told the boys that Ringo wanted to die first because he loved us so much. I didn’t really explain what I meant. I don’t really know what I meant at the time. Looking back, though, I can’t help but wonder if it were true. Ringo never got in the way of a vehicle. He was street smart, a stray when I found him, chest height, wearing a chest harness attached to a broken chain. I can’t help but wonder if God gave Ringo the opportunity not only to love his master in life but now to love his master in death, to die in such a way as to give life through his death, to take up his cross and die for me. Perhaps he or God saw how careless I can be pulling out of the driveway and knew I needed to learn a lesson, a hard and convincing lesson. The fact is, it could have just as easily been one of my children in the wayward path of my truck. And Ringo knew the difference between the children and the dog. He knew what a child is worth to his master. Perhaps, then, in his last gesture of love for his master and his master’s family he threw himself under my truck to prevent me from killing one of my own children, which could have happened just as easily, just as quickly, just as permanently. There is a very real possibility that Ringo’s death has saved a child’s, my child’s, life. Ringo is a hero, perhaps even a martyr, and for that he deserves nothing less than the Lion’s share of my inheritance.  


Yesterday morning, before all hell broke loose, I woke up way earlier than my alarm and could not fall back to sleep. So I made my coffee and walked over to the wood stove to sit beside Ringo, who was still asleep on his blanket, snoring. I startled him when I put my hand on his head, one of the few times in our relationship I can remember acknowledging his presence before he acknowledged mine, and only now because he was in a deep sleep, and because he was deaf. I touched him and he was jolted out of his slumber, awakening to his master scratching behind his ears, that place God installed dogs’ love receptors. He didn’t move his body but stretched his chin toward my thigh, waiting for me to meet him the rest of the 9/10s of the way. He knew I would. He knew how much I loved him when the kids weren’t around and I wasn’t in a bad mood. So I scooted over a few feet and he rested his chin on my leg. I was acknowledging his presence, and it was one of the best mornings of his life.

It is comforting to know that yesterday, on the day he died, I got to surprise him into life with my presence, to acknowledge his presence before he acknowledged mine, awakening him to his master’s unsolicited love—because I believe Tomorrow will happen for him in just the same way, as it will for us all who call Christ our Master, when the loud cry at death enters into the ground commanding the briars to die and the Garden to grow, when the grieving of God over death erupts from below as the command of Life everlasting, Light everlasting, Love everlasting—the world under the command of its Master, all creation at the feet of Jesus.

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Dying in the Womb of Triune Love: Mothers, Fathers, & The Faceless Pain of Miscarriages

The silence of the doctor matched the darkness on the screen. He kept moving the wand around but darkness looks the same from every angle. 

“I’m sorry. It looks like you lost him about three weeks ago.”

Keldy’s eyes started to well up. We held it together through all the formalities of getting the hell out of there, but the moment we stepped outside Keldy burst into tears, soaking my shoulder with her grief. We stood in a stale breezeway and fell into each others’ arms, trying to embrace the black hole between us but only ever arriving at infinite distances. No breeze ever came.

For Keldy, it was a moment filled with the pain I suppose only a mother can ever know. For me, it was a moment filled with emptiness. I was hollow. My soul was unmoved, absolute zero. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel. I inhabited a matter-of-fact nothingness that I’ve not known since before I was born. And it wasn’t that I was trying “to be strong for her” or anything noble like that. There was just nothing. It just felt the way that ultrasound looked. 

Until I called my mother. She answered the phone the way she always does.

“Hey Baby!”

I typically retort, “Hi Janice”, to reassure both of us that I’m not really a “baby” anymore. But I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. The moment I heard the weight of sincerity in her voice—“Baby!”—a wave crashed down my throat and into my lungs. The end of my sentence cracked into silence as an invisible hand wrapped around my neck, hot: “…a miscarriage.”

“Oh Jeremy…”

“Jeremy?”

I couldn’t speak. It was as if up to that point my eyes had been inhaling the world of that lightless void and only now found a suitable place to exhale. It didn’t come out as a matching silence but a wordless groan. It no longer felt like non-life. It now felt like death. It felt like all of life rushing into a single moment, the moment it all went rushing out. And that was a fullness too great to bear. Out came a river, like the big one with the dark red plague.


I think there are certain tears that can only come out in the presence of select people. Maybe they’re even directed toward those people. Perhaps there are levels of pain so great they don’t even register if the right person isn’t available to help carry it. I wonder how much pain in this world flies under the radar carried by people who feel it precisely as nothingness. 

I wonder if such people, those who seem most immune to pain, are those whose pain has found no one outside with open arms, no chest on which to lay its prickly head. I wonder if their mother still calls them “Baby,” or if she ever did. I wonder if they have dark rivers coiling up inside them, like a serpent under threat, with no one willing to share their pain, no one willing to be their Dead Sea. But pain, like water, is always pressing against the edges to find a way out. Pain that is not shared by others is likely to be projected onto others, pain with fangs. As Richard Rohr has said, “if you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it in some form.” Or, if you like, Robert Plant: “If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s going to break; when the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay” (Led Zeppelin). 

Human life is too big for its britches, a pinpoint in time with the capacity to take in “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19) but also to dish out “all evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Humans, as God’s image-bearers, are created in the overflow, so we can hardly help but splash around in the weeping and rejoicing and good and evil of others. But there are some who have yet to find anyone to share their puddle with them. Some men are islands.

With all exits dammed, death works it way upstream, sealing up any expression of sorrow and turning lifeblood into poison. If you can’t wet someone else’s shoulder with your grief, you will surely wet someone else’s bloodstream with your venom. Life becomes death and death needs motherly love to be brought back to life, a womb to receive it in order to bring light to its darkness and give form to its void. Alone, death begets death.


There is a kind of pain that, like love, has to be shared to be felt deeply, to be known for what it truly is. The pain of a child dying is just such a pain. And this happens to be the pain God shared with this world when he shared his love with this world. “For God has proven his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). Bitter is the sharing of God’s life with our particular brand of pain, of God’s love with those who invariably reject it and only thereby receive it for what it truly is—for heavy lies the crown of thorns. 

“Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Mt. 26:39). 

The closest red-mud image we have to this kind of bipolar, self-denying love is the love of a mother. It is a love that must live for two at the expense of the one so willing to live. It is a love that knows pain personally, deep in the gut, and yet refuses to run from it, even when it has left the gut. It is a love that knows pain must be shared if life is to be shared—for life is wrought through pain (Gen. 3:16). A mother suffers, a child is born. Jesus suffers, a child is born again. 


It is no surprise, then, that the pain of my grief only found its exit at the sound of my own mother’s voice. She spoke—“Baby!”-–and commanded forth the death in me. Perhaps it was the thought of how heartbroken she would be at the news that first broke my heart. I never understood that the strained sound of “concern” I had always detected in her voice toward me was actually the sound of my pain. A mother’s voice is the sound of a life thrust into someone else’s future, someone with a life and will and death of his own. “If anything were to ever happen to you…” she would always say with a wince. Hypothetical scenarios in my mother’s mind produce unhypothetical agony in all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She was better prepared to feel this new pain than I was, because it wasn’t new to her. She had never lost any of her babies, but she had agonized over the thought, especially during that extended period of time I gave her plenty to think about.

So perhaps it was the thought of how how heartbroken she would be, but I don’t really remember. I just remember the moment I heard her voice, the dam began to leak and almost immediately burst wide open.“O Jeremy…”, she winced. Up grief arose from the abyss, and I inadvertently aimed it all at my mother, for I had found a pit deeper than the Nile is long—and I and my dead baby and my bleeding wife and our agony were all already there. She was now agonizing over the loss of our baby but also over her Baby’s agony. Our tears was hers; we wept, she wept. She wept, I wept more. I suddenly felt like a baby and a miscarriage all at once. 


Until then I had been conceiving of this miscarriage simply in terms of loss, but it’s hard for a father to distinguish between the absence of an unborn baby and the loss of an unborn baby. Unborn babies are absent to fathers in that special way they are not absent to mothers, whatever that is. But the woman whose womb I had inhabited 30-some years ago as an unborn baby had just identified my own presence in a way that identified my baby’s absence, and I was at once struck with precisely what, precisely whom, I had lost: my Baby…

I had lost a name. I had lost the voice that would one day call me “Daddy,” and then another day call me “Jeremy” to reassure us both he was all grown up. I had lost the center of a shared universe, a life’s worth of an entire future, a spot at the table. I had lost the warmth on my chest in the rocking chair, the joy tackling my legs at the front door, the presence that is always present to me, even in its absence.

But my baby was no longer absent. He was dead. Kadence was dead, his presence now agonizing. 


“I’m coming,” she demanded. 

It’s the only thing she knew to say in response to my quaking silence. I suppose it’s the only thing worth saying in response to silence like that. It’s what God said to a nation of exiles breathing in the death of life and land and liberty, the death of their children’s future. Fathers say things to try to make sense of this world’s misbegotten pasts, but mothers say things that create a future. “I’m coming for you.” They make the kind of words that can be made flesh. Out of the abundance of her womb a mother speaks. 

And she came. She packed her bags and drove 500 miles into the night to come and stand in the middle of all its darkness, a single candle to two blackened wicks, sharing her light by sharing our darkness. It didn’t feel better when she arrived. It felt more. She wasn’t there to take away the pain. She was there to help us walk into it headlong. She came as a pallbearer and crawled underneath the crushing weight of a death too small for a casket. And there, in the middle of that godawful night, my wife descended into hell with a husband and mother trying their best to shield her sides, trying to absorb as much of the fire as possible, as the misoprostol-induced labor sent high volts of dark energy convulsing through her body. Not long before dawn, she finally gave birth to a terrible stream of death.


Once we had received Kadence’s death into this world, the three of us sat together in the large wake of a little life and remained, weeping, passing around the bitter cup he delivered to us. We drank as much of the moment as we could before the swell moved out from beneath us toward a sinking horizon, opposite the one we had to continue to face. It was hard to leave that moment, watching an entire future swept into a faceless past, but the moment had to be buried in our memory so that Kadence could begin live in our memory. 

Many refuse to give life to the dead in their memory because they refuse to bury the moment of death in their memory. They live in the moment forever, forgetting life altogether, redefining the life they loved by the death they hate. Death haunts their memory, while the dead stand at the door and knock, carrying armfuls of shared stories in buckets of light, only wishing to be shared again, to shine again. But no son of mine is going to be left out for dead, homeless to my heart. His name is Kadence, not Miscarriage, and he will be remembered as he is, the image of God, the reflection of eternal life that continues to shine in the light of God’s love. 

We cannot run from death when it arrives, but neither can we remain in death when it departs. We drink all the bitterness of death but only in the name of life, only because death is the sharp edge of life. But life in God’s good world is not defined by its edge. Indeed, it is defined by the One who stands staked at its edge, stretching rays of life out to both sides, holding together memory and hope in one new horizon of promise. 


Kadence came into this world like a dying meteor tearing a wound in the night sky with its light. But that wound has become sacred and the scar it left continues to glow in our memory. It is the memory of a misbegotten life that was never forsaken in death. It is the memory of a death that was cradled in a triune embrace of grieving love. It is the memory of a day that the God who hovers over the face of the deep descended into the abyss upon us and let there be light. It is the vision of this dying world as it truly is, groaning in the pains of childbirth, a tomb of history wrapped up in the womb of Triune Love.

And indeed, it is the memory of God’s motherly promise to Kadence, to us all:

“I’m coming for you.” 

Dancing with Echoes: On Cain, Shame, & the Devil in Disguise (An Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a book project I will probably never finish, in which case it is more properly called a fragment from an unfinished essay. So below is a fragment from an unfinished essay. Let’s call it Unfinished Essay 2. In a fragment from, say, Unfinished Essay 1, I discussed the familial nature of the image of God as the design against which all other forms of human relationality must be judged. The fragment below assumes familiarity with that argument from that fragment in Unfinished Essay 1. But you’ll manage.


The family project continues in the east. Eve’s title as mother of all the living is brought to fruition in the spread of Adam’s seed. Eve was formed out of Adam’s rib, but the rest of the world is formed out of Adam’s loin. Eden has been barred. The first guardian angels are sent to block the way back.[1] God would protect his Garden from the most dangerous kind of pestilence—unrestrained testosterone. The men of the east would take their pens of dominion and plowshares of the Garden and beat them into swords. Gardening in God’s world would give way to nation building. Men would begin to scribble history with blood, becoming increasingly brute and uncreative with each generation. In the man’s world, the family would be thrust deep into the shadows to bring into the spotlight the dark hunting hearts of the warlords, whose concept of good writing amounts to little more pressing harder with the pen. It was not good for man to be alone. This history begins with two brothers. They were the firstfruits of Adam’s seed.

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is has clear intentions. It is a ground account of the bird’s flight to follow. In principle, it is the same story as Genesis 3—the story of the way sin to divides the human family from one another and from God—but it does have a few significant differences. While Genesis 3 focuses on the first causes of sin in the parents of the human race, Genesis 4 focuses on the first effects of sin in the children. It is therefore naturally more empathetic to the world that begins outside the Garden, the world in which its readers find themselves, the world of Israel, the world of us. Genesis 3 also reveals the true faces of the family and its enemy, of the divinely ordered unity and the soulless search for divinity, the ignorance of which produces much strife in subsequent history. It is not trivial that it begins with two brothers and ends with an only child.[2] Adam’s world was and has ever since been a world of brothers killing brothers and calling them others. If there are any illusions about the way of a man after Adam, any lingering hope of returning to Eden, this story sobers and severs. It exists to orient us to the long road ahead, a one-way easterly road that ever polarizes its travelers from the Garden way. The Garden gate and its guardian angels will grow smaller and smaller in our rearview memory.

Cain and Abel were born after the cherubim took their posts at the east gate. Adam’s seeds immediately begin to sprout out of the cursed ground of the east. Cain is a gardener, like his father. He spends his days playing in the dirt of this thorny ground. Abel is a herdsman. No women are in the story. The Lord does not intervene. He gives space for the love of freedom, which men love to fill with control. It turns violent—quickly. The brothers bring offerings to the Lord. The Lord does not regard Cain’s ground-grown offering. He accepts Abel’s first-born offering. It is too early to make sense of the Lord’s discretion. Speculations can be made about the parallels of the Garden garments or the kind of sacrifice needed in a condemned world, but they are only speculations. The story does not draw attention to a symbolic meaning of either offering, but to the way Cain reacts to his sense of the Lord’s rejection. Human history is unwittingly all about the creative and uncreative ways men handle that sense of the Lord’s rejection. Since men cannot reach the Lord, they are wont to take it out on others, even, often especially, brothers.

Cain gets angry—a new emotion enters the Genesis narrative. Anger is a new way of dealing with shame. Shame, again, is the ground feeling of heavenly guilt, the impulse to hide from we know not what, only that we must hide ourselves. Shame in the Garden sought a scapegoat, but in this world the scapegoat is ripe for the slaughter. It is much the same as what we have already seen. An obvious pattern emerges. Discord in the divine-human community finds first expression on the ground. God did not accept Cain’s offering, but he does suggest to Cain that Cain can still be accepted, “if you (Cain) do well. If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”[3] Sin crouches at our door. It now exists ‘out there’ like a cold front in the open air or a snake pit in a gated community.

Or does it? Where is sin actually located in this story? That is perhaps one of the questions this story is designed to answer. Regardless, its desire is for Cain. All it has to do now—all sin ever has to do—is exploit Cain’s shame. Sin has found its dance partner.

Cain has not sinned at this point in the story, and yet he behaves as like an escaped convict, as though living in the shadow of some past offense, as though guilty before proven innocent. He is impulsive, rash, desperate. It is evident that there is more to the scene than meets the eye, a certain underlying tension. The sequence in the Garden story was command, confusion, deception, disobedience. In this story, the middle components are indistinct, because they seem to be all that is there. The motivations for Cain’s actions are not part of the script. They seem, instead, encoded in the heart of the script, perhaps encoded in the heart of Cain.

The Lord announces that Cain can still be accepted, that he can rule over sin. But there is no response, no indication that an attempt is made to heed his words. There is, rather, an eerie sense that an invisible third party character is whispering in Cain’s ear, something like, “Did God really say…” or “Who is God to say…” or “Are you not yourself capable of knowing good and evil?” or “You are god.” But the serpent is nowhere to be found. He had returned to his hole. He apparently no longer needed to be present for his echoes to be heard, so it behooved him to remain hidden. If blame terminated at him each time, as it did in the Garden scene, he would never accomplish his goal of instigating retaliation. The presence of a tempter makes guilt far more slippery a thing to hammer down—and guilt must be hammered down. A visible talking snake means there is an enemy of God, and it may not be me. But an invisible talking snake means there’s an enemy of God in my head. And it is in that case much harder to pretend that his voice is not sometimes the ‘sweet, sweet sound’ that I hear when I sing about God’s ear, and that all my songs are slurred by the lisp of a two-pronged tongue.

If the serpent’s whisperings were now in some sense buried in Adam’s seed, his greatest strategy would undoubtedly be to never rear his head again—indeed, he never does again, at least not to ordinary eyes. The only thing more dangerous than a talking snake in a Garden is a talking snake in your head. That is the kind of thing that will drive a man mad. It drove Cain mad. 

In the Garden the serpent could encourage segregation, domestic violence and even divorce between the two-made-to-be-one. He could convince them, as is his custom, to stop holding each other’s hearts and to start pointing their fingers and clinching their fists; but he could not yet convince them to embrace a segregation and begin to throw stones. He could not convince them to declare a civil war. Their two-become-oneness was perhaps designed at the very least, on those harder days on the homestead, to keep them from killing each other, since they’d be killing half of themselves. And although all humanity was born of this oneness (cf. Gen. 2-3; Jn. 17), there are varied degrees of separation that provide the distance necessary to sever empathy. Like stabbing a limb with dead nerves, for many, killing a brother doesn’t even hurt, even if he does bleed with my blood, even if I am, in fact, his keeper (Gen. 4:9). 

Shame has many reflexes. It adapts to its environment. But its goal is always the same as it was in the almost-beginning: to self-preserve. In the Garden, shame sought merely to find a worse offender to deflect the guilt. Adam points to Eve, Eve to the serpent, and the scale terminates at bottom with the devil. But this is a different environment. The serpent is missing. God has made a judgment about the brothers’ offerings. Cain is unpleased with God’s judgment. God does not condemn Cain but he does offend him. Cain does not need to repent. He needs only to stay humble. He needs only to accept that God’s judgments are good, even if that means God does not regard his offering to be good. Perhaps God is just real, and real Persons have preferences. And perhaps God is good and just to impose his preferences upon us. Perhaps it is good that God prefers we love our enemies and not cut of their heads, even when that means loving those who have cut off people’s heads. Perhaps the world is best when we make no amendments to “Love your enemy,” which of course was the amendment to “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (Mt. 5-6). Besides, I guess I can’t hold God’s preferential nature against God. If I’m honest, I have no regard for my grandma’s offering of yet another three-pack of bright white Fruit of the Loom underwear every Christmas. But that does not mean I have no regard for my grandma. That is why I lie to her. But God is not a liar like me. Perhaps that is why God prefers I not reckon myself to be God, or good.

But in the case of Cain, he only needs to accept that not all offerings are created equal, and that only means accepting that God is God and he is not. But who is really willing to accept that? Who will not first have to accept that “no one is good but God alone”? Who will not first have to acquit all their enemies of their evils and throw their stones down in the dirt? Who will not first have to pardon others by crucifying the voice of the accuser in their own head every single day of their life? But, alas, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn after emerging from Soviet captivity in the Gulag, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every man. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

[1] Gen. 3:24.

[2] Of course, Seth is born, but Cain goes his own way and builds a city. The contrast between city and family is clearly intentional.

[3] Gen. 4:7.

Welcome to Lent: Remember to Die

desert

In ancient Rome, military generals returning victorious from war would be paraded through streets in a chariot to inhabit the praise of the people in celebration. But behind the general, in the same chariot, a slave was placed whose sole responsibility was to whisper in the general’s ear sobering words that served to protect him from the delusions of grandeur that inevitably come to those who find themselves at the center of human praise: Memento mori. 

“Remember to die.” 

It seems like an odd reminder, considering the fact that none of us have much to say in the matter, and all of us will certainly prove equal to the task when the occasion presents itself. But of all the facts of life, death turns out to be perhaps the easiest to forget. Or perhaps all of life is oriented toward one long attempt to forget about death, because the moment we become aware of death is the exact moment we become aware of a uniquely human desire: not to die.[1]


Life begins with a desire to eat, to drink, to touch and be touched, but one day we wake up with the desire to be gods, that is, to not die. But since that desire proves to provide little practical counsel for the day-to-day task of being human, we busy ourselves with lesser desires in a pursuit toward satisfaction, expanding our kingdoms, our influence, our bank accounts, our progeny, willfully forgetting that all we value as treasure today the moth will value as food tomorrow. And eventually, even the moths will die. But we insist on willfully forgetting what we know to be true–that nothing less than immortality could possibly satisfy the most basic longing beneath all the rumblings of the human experience that drive us ‘to distraction from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). Where, after all, are the limits of our desire? When, after all, has anyone ever found enough? When has the satisfaction of desire not given birth to yet another, even if the it is simply the desire to remain satisfied, the desire not to die.

So we live our lives as though we will live forever, often using people likes steps on a Babylonian towers on an infinite trajectory, aimed squarely at nothing less than exactly ‘more’—in all its arbitrary finite forms. But ‘more’ turns out to never be ‘enough’. Desire is always stronger that satisfaction. The human soul is a bottomless pit, grounding our appetites in  a boundless, formless void. We are not like the burning bush Moses met on the mountaintop, whose fire did not consume; we are like every other fire burning up the world. So with every met expectation we discover an unmet expectation that lies deeper in the gut, farther from the heart.

“To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God“: that is Paul’s implicit diagnosis in the form of prescription. But the God-sized love we were created to be filled with has been has been infected with our love of so many lesser things. As the deer panteth for the water so my soul panteth after you, O God, and also after you, O sex, and you, O power, and you, O approval, O praise, O just about anything to distract me from the eternity God has stubbornly placed in my heart, in order that I won’t find anything this side of eternity more than temporary satisfaction (Eccles. 3:11)—in order that I might eventually become dissatisfied with temporary satisfactions. Until then, our pursuits will continue to tear us in two opposite directions, driven by two geometrically opposed loves. We love to be loved by God, but we also love to love our sin.

Every particular sin has the same genealogy. Sin is always the product of (a) a desire (b) based on a deception (c) organized against love. All desires based on deceptions organized against love are what the bible calls temptations. Temptations are experienced as an appeal to freedom, but they are precisely the opposite because they ultimately function to enslave freedom to desire, not to satisfy desire through freedom. Such temptations are not an appeal to freedom but, ultimately, to pride. Pride always feels like freedom because pride always gets to say, “My will be done.” But human freedom is not simply the power of the will to act; it is the power of the will to love, because love is the ultimate and essential human desire. With the will not oriented toward its proper end the power of the will to act is nothing more than the will to power: the drive of life toward infinite desire rather than infinite satisfaction. It attends to an indefinite future without ever finding rest in the present moment; it is the urgent now, not the eternal now. It is about survival, not life, the will’s appetite for more, not the soul’s appetite for enough, for fullness, for God. 

This becomes more practically obvious as life in the body ages with the body. Eventually embodied life begins to feel like an endless pursuit of escalating goals, with each step up the ladder revealing more clearly only how high our Infinite desire truly is, and thus how low human striving gets us. Every promise turns out to be only half full because we are always left at least half empty. Youth are naïve; their grandparents are bitter. All are forgetful. To remember to die in the light of eternity begins by letting our desires die in the light of today.  

Thus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our essential reminder—the story of the God who became a backseat slave to whisper into the front of our chariots: Memento mori. The season of Lent, beginning today, is our annual pilgrimage into the desert with Jesus (Mt. 4), where our subterranean temptations to forget rise to the surface with the serpent who seduces us to rise up in war against our mortality. If you are the Son of God, pursue pleasure! (cf. Lk. 4:3) Pursue power! (Lk. 4:6-7) Pursue praise! (Lk. 4:9-11). It is the temptation of Son of God, because the Son of God became Son of Man. And this is the temptation of every man, woman, and child: the lust of the flesh (good for food), the lust of the eyes (delight to the eyes), the pride of life (desired to make one wise), indeed, the forbidden fruit—to be as gods—not to die (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Gen. 3:1-7).


And so we enter the desert today, where we confront the twisted shape of our two-pronged souls, fashioned after the forked shape of that tempter’s deceptions. We desire God, yes, but we confess too our other desires, splintering forth from the divisions in our soul. We do have a passion for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, but we confess there are other gasoline passions. We desire God’s will, but we confess we never desire “not my will.” We never desire to let ‘my will’ die, and so live into the eternal will of the Father. 

And so we must return to the desert fast to search ourselves for areas of amnesia, reminding our obstinate wills to die, to remind ourselves of the direction we are all headed, lest we continue to chase empty upward promises that only push the deeper side of the soul out to the surface, thinning it out, so that life just becomes a series of unexamined actions and reactions, like a restless pinball with an impenetrable surface—no stability, no connection, no depth, no anchors, no stillness, no reflection, no transparency, no exposure of the heart, no communion of the spirit, no deep crying out to deep (Ps. 42), leaving us in the end like a cicada shell clinging to that forbidden tree. 

By moving through this somber season of self-examination we are better prepared to see how fitting is the cross, not for Christ but for us. Indeed, as the thief at Jesus’ side confessed, it is our “just reward” (Lk. 23:41). In our unreflective world, fast-paced and on-demand, there is hardly a more urgent need for the life of faith than this kind of reflection, which inevitably leads us into repentance, since herein we discover no small attempt in our heart to rise up as gods—to live by pleasure alone, power alone, pride alone. Only then can our Good Friday Gospel penetrate to the level of the salvation we actually need—salvation from ourselves. We must remember to die, lest we succeed needing no life other than our own. Only then can we be properly prepared to utter the truth of our Sunday Morning confession: “I am crucified with Christ—nevertheless I live!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

~ Son of God, Son of Man


Footnote

  1. Of course, all creatures instinctively desire to survive, but only humans desire not to die. That is to say, only humans can conceptualize death as such and in so doing cannot avoid, if even only for a flinching moment, contemplating their own death. Human consciousness is plagued with eternal dimensions. We can travel in our minds beyond ourselves, modeling universes and genesises and apocalypses. But when when we try to travel into the dark void of non-being, of our own non-being, we indeed discover “a bourne from which no traveler returns” (Hamlet). We become aware of the judgment this world is under, for we know that end of my consciousness is for me the same as having never had a consciousness, and that is the same for me as there not being and never having been and there never going to be anything at all (cf. Jenson, On Thinking the Human). And since there is no life apart from consciousness, the inevitability of death leads to the absurd conclusion of a pure and utter negation of being as such.

Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior (12/26/13)


“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). 


The baby was born. They called him James.

There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.

But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.

I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?

But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.


I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.

Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. Middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.

When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.

When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.


The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.

The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye. 

There are no words here that will do.

I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…

I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35). 


Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.


His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.

Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.

We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.

Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.


Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” 

~ Psalm 36:7

Advent Reflection: Fear Not, Let Go of Your Blankie

An excerpt from The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise

“And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50).

My five year-old and three year-old call it their “blankie.” My two-year old calls it “bankie!” Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus called it his “security and happiness blanket” (Good Grief, More Peanuts, 1956). Child psychologists refer to it as a “comfort object” or “transitional object,” often referring to a (literal) security “blanket” but sometimes to a stuffed animal or other such item. These are objects that are typically used in early childhood as children begin to develop self-awareness and a sense of relative independence. Newborns see the world as an extension of themselves, but soon the illusion of an undifferentiated connection with the whole is reduced to just the mother, who “brings the world” to the infant. The baby’s inarticulate desire is translated to screaming in the middle of the night; screaming in the middle of the night is met with the faithful mother who comes to satisfy the desire; the mother is the child’s “security blanket” from the world full of hunger pains. 

But eventually, the child must be disillusioned if he or she is going to make it in the world. As it’s been said, the parent’s job is “to teach the child how to live with God and without you.” The child must learn not only that mom isn’t going to be around forever to “bring the world to us” but also that the world that will be brought to us is sometimes not the world we had hoped for. Sometimes the real world it is precisely the world we feared it might be.

This is where blankies and passies and teddies come in handy. It’s about having something familiar to hold onto in a world that often forces the unfamiliar upon us. Ambulances are stuffed full of “emergency blankets” to give to victims of trauma, not because trauma victims are necessarily cold, but because there are times we all need a “blankie.”  In fact, after polling over 6,000 people trying to track down the owners of about 75,000 stuffed animals in 452 hotels, the hotel chain Travelodge discovered that 35 percent of British adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

Life is scary, especially for adults.


That’s why we prefer the illusion. It’s also why we refer to retirement funds as “security blankets,” which is just another way of talking about the “blankie” we take to our death bed. We hold on to the illusion because between recessions, ISIS, corrupt leaders, teenagers texting and driving, old people texting and driving, not to mention the inevitability of death, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing, unless you are a follower of Jesus. In that case, letting go of the illusion would mean holding on to exactly nothing but the claim of Christmas: that the God who is sovereign over life and death has sent his Son to be our security in life and in death, and that Christ is coming back to “bring the world” to us (Rev. 21). 

But I must confess that this promise isn’t all that comforting, at least not like a blankie is comforting. This, after all, is the same one of whom Mary said, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” Nobody fears their blankie; they use it to hide from their fears, to hide “under the covers” from hellish monsters. So it’s a terrifying prospect to walk through life empty-handed, armed only with the assurance that the One we fear most is the Same who is coming for us, like the little boy who daily dreads his father coming home from work, sometimes late from the bar. No wonder it’s hard to let go of the illusion. 

But that’s not the kind of fear we have because that’s not the kind of Father we have.

As my good friend, Joe, recently pointed out in an Advent devotional he is writing, fearing the Lord is not the same as being afraid of the Lord. Being afraid is about feeling out of control but also about not trusting the one you think is in control. It’s the little boy who is afraid of his father, the little boy hiding under the covers from him and all the other monsters in the world. This is what the Bible calls the fear of man: 

“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that man gets justice” (Prov. 29:25-26).

But the Bible does not speak of the fear of the Lord in this way. In fact, Precisely the opposite, in fact: 

“In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge. The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:26-27).

This is the boy who thinks his father is the strongest man on earth and runs to the door each day to leap headlong into his father’s unrelenting arms, never even considering the prospect of his father dropping him. He is the strongest of all men not only because of the immensity of his strength but, more importantly, because he is in perfect control over his strength. That is why he is not a monster. His temper doesn’t demon-possess him; never comes home late and takes it out on the boy. He uses his strength to hold, not to harm, to embrace, not to abuse. The boy’s reverent fear takes the form of confidence. The only thing he has to fear is turning from his father and jumping into the arms of someone whose strength cannot be trusted, either because his strength is too weak to catch him or because his will is too weak not to harm him. 

Such gods and fathers and leaders and others may be stronger than the boy, but they are not worth the boy’s fear, because they do not compare to the strength of his true God and the good-will of his true Father. Fear the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who can catch you when you fall, the only one whose will is to work all things together for your good, even when you are bad. 

This is the way Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord. We are called to fear the only One we don’t have to be afraid of, the One who is indeed coming for us, to bring the world to us, as we jump headlong into his arms.


So it’s no surprise that when the angels were sent to announce his coming, the first words of their announcement were, “Fear not!” In fact, Mary herself was one of the first to hear it (1:30), second only to Zechariah (Lk. 1:13), and then the shepherds (Lk. 2:10). And Jesus himself would say it five more times just in the Gospel of Luke. Fear not, for the One you fear most is coming for you, and he is the One who loves you most fiercely. Indeed, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10), but it’s not the end of wisdom:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).

Perhaps, then, we could all learn a little lesson from Linus. Linus was known for being the kid who refused to let go of his blankie. But who can blame him when the alternative is to resort to a life of exchanging one illusion for another, graduating from one fear to the next, but never ultimately finding freedom from fear?

But, in fact, Linus did let go of his blankie, he did find freedom from fear. He just waited till the appropriate time. He waited till he found something worth holding onto: the One who came to catch him when falls, the One who is bringing the world to him, indeed, to us all. 

Just notice the exact moment he drops his blankie.

Now go and do likewise.

Advent Reflection: Unplanned Parenthood

rembr

Joseph’s Dream at the Stable in Bethlehem  ~ Rembrandt

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled…And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus…And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:26-34).




“I’ll take that baby!”

It wasn’t heroic so much as it was impulsive. It just seemed like the only appropriate response to the moment’s need. For weeks, Keldy and I had been talking through a situation with a young gal who was walking through a situation with her friend. Her friend was pregnant. It was unplanned. The alleged father was not answering the phone. Time was ticking.

She was terrified to get an abortion but more terrified of what would happen if she didn’t. Among all else, she would almost certainly be kicked out of the Christian University she attended. So when she finally decided to confide in her mother, entertaining the notion of proceeding with the pregnancy and the costs of doing so, her mother told her she would be left on her own, unsupported, if she got kicked out of school. Because that was the most pressing issue…

The girl we were mentoring told us that day her friend felt, ironically enough, she was left with “no choice” and so scheduled an appointment at the abortion clinic for the following week. [I wonder how many “pro-choice” decisions came from what appeared to be a “no-choice” situation.] Having no one else she could trust, she had asked her most loyal friend, who was now confiding in us, if she would go with her, if she would support her through it all, because “I cannot do this by myself.” It was just a wrenching mess. And my half-hearted, half-brained offer missed the point altogether. It was based on the stupid assumption that this girl didn’t want her baby. She did want her baby. The problem was that no one else wanted her baby—not the father, not her mother, not her academic overlords—and neither did they want an unmarried-and-with-child version of her.

What struck me as I mulled over the situation that day and many days since is that the reason a little baby would end up being aborted by the person it depended on for life is that the baby’s mother was under the threat of being aborted by the people she depended on for life. It indeed takes a village to raise a child, but perhaps it takes a village to abort one too.


And so God forms a village to raise Mary’s Child, God’s Son, while Herod sent an army to abort Him (Mt. 3:16). It was an unplanned pregnancy, at least as regards the young couple’s plans. They had been planning for a wedding but would now have to plan for parenthood. Their only conceivable plan for parenthood up to this point was to become a father and mother after becoming husband and wife, and only after that. But now we have something like a pregnant nun situation. And just as pregnant nuns become ex-nuns, pregnant virgins become ex-virgins, which is grounds for Mary becoming Joseph’s ex-fiancé.

Culturally, Joseph should expose her shame and leave her at the disposal of the community and her unborn child’s father. But she, along with the entire human family from Adam, was already at the disposal of her unborn Child’s Father. And He was going to make sure that she could proceed with the pregnancy without becoming an ex-anything. She need not not fear, for she had “found favor with God” (Lk. 1:30). The young virgin would give birth to the Eternal Son.

“Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to shame her” (Mt. 1:17), but he still wanted to leave her. So God sent an angel to explain the situation and to make sure he took care of her. And Joseph did so until (presumably) he died. She would then, a widow, have to depend on her Son. But He would die young too. Under ordinary circumstances, this would render her among the most vulnerable of society, second perhaps only to the unborn. But the day she stood at her Son’s high hanging feet, his final provision before saving the entire human race was to ensure his mother would be taken care of:

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27).

The Gospel begins with Mary receiving an unplanned Son and Joseph receiving an already-pregnant fiancé, and it ends with the Beloved Disciple receiving another Man’s mother. The family of God would forever hence be defined at the foot of the cross.


The Church of Jesus Christ, I believe, must be pro-life, but I believe we must be pro-life in the way Joseph was pro-life at Jesus’ conception and the way the Beloved Disciple was pro-life at Jesus’ death. We must embrace the life of the unborn precisely by embracing the life of the mother. Churches throughout America have exactly the same amount of opportunities to abort young women (not to mention young men and young couples together) in need of our support as young women have to abort babies in need of their support. We cannot directly prevent the nation’s abortions, but we can directly prevent our own. And we have every reason to believe that when a community of love and support makes the sincere and sustained effort to gather around young women and couples in a way that demonstrates they are wanted and valued, in a way that assures them they won’t have to try to raise their children all alone, live life all alone, we will prevent far more abortions than we ever could by making a commensurate effort to surround ourselves with other people who agree that abortion is wrong, no matter how loud we shout it.

If we truly want young women to be no less than Mary for every unplanned pregnancy, we can be no less than Joseph for every fatherless child, no less than the the Beloved Disciple for every unsupported mother. But this costs more than the occasional protest. It costs us being inconvenienced by others in the way Mary and Joseph and the Beloved Disciples were inconvenienced by others, perhaps even in the way the unplanned Other in question was inconvenienced by all of us.

If Christ shares the burden of human death, surely he can expect us to share the burden of human life, whether that means adopting babies or adopting mothers—for we all are adoptees (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5). And while this may or may not require a formal adoption process, it will require an effort to make room for others in our lives in very tangible ways. It will require welcoming young women and men into our homes and to our tables, into conversations, into mentoring relationships, friendships, and into our gatherings, and doing so before they find themselves in such desperate situations. But it also means welcoming young women and men in precisely the same way after they find themselves in such desperate situations. It means being committed to making room for others’ lives so that they can commit to making room for life when it comes, planned or unplanned, because this is always God’s plan for human life.

Indeed, God’s ‘planned parenthood’ for the whole human race began with a little Galilean village that committed to raising a Child as though he were their own, only to later discover that through this Child God would raise them, indeed would raise us all, as though we were children of His own. Because in Jesus Christ “that is what we are” (1 Jn. 3:1; Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:12-17).

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).