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.”

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.” 

Advertisements

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 the 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 didn’t want to have an abortion but was 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 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 too 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 that baby’s mother had been aborted by the people she depended on for life. It indeed takes a village to raise a child, but 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 community 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 must be pro-life, but 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 means welcoming young women and men in precisely the same way after they find themselves in such desperate situations, as well. 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, would raise us all, as though we were children of His own. Because “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).

Without Homemakers the World is Without Homes

“The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only–and that is to support the ultimate career.”

~ C.S. Lewis [Actually, this is misattributed to Lewis, but I’m certain he would have agreed.]

If the journey of human life, the journey of transformation, is most fully realized by the grace of God through the power of the Spirit in redeeming us to become who we were created to be, the Image of God, then what could possibly surpass the life that has found its deepest joy, peace, and fulfillment as a homemaker? What is the Bible if not a small library of books about the God who from the very beginning is a Homemaker, about the creatures who shortly after the beginning ran away from home, and finally about the God-become-Creature who came to rescue us from the pig sty of the distant country so he could bring us all Home, where there is a Homecoming celebration ongoing without end.

[If you read what follows as a statement for or against any any of the typical arguments regarding gender roles, you will miss the point.]

It is sad to me that in the late history of Western civilization “homemaker” became the “role” relegated to women, which complemented the “role” of “provider” relegated to men. [Prior to the Industrial Revolution, husbands and wives worked together as homemakers, though the word did not yet exist because the division of roles did not yet exist in the way it does today.] Sadder still, as these roles took root in our cultural idiom and eventually became mores, social values, that organized society, such that men had no clear purpose within the home and women had no clear purpose outside the home, the value of a man was reduced to utility–his value is commensurate with what he can provide, produce, possess–and the value of a woman was reduced to subservience to her “provider”–“your desire shall for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3–God’s description of a fallen world, which always finds its truest expression in the home, which is why redemption always finds its truest expression in the home). Sadder still, men in our culture grew to love being less than men, making a virtue of their slavish pursuit of value, “providing” for their family at the cost of being present to their family. They were exiled from the home they lived to construct for the women who grew to hate being there.

Of course they did. They were never intended to fill the house with the spirit of home by themselves, worse, with men who had lost their spirit of home. Sadder still is it that when this subject is argued in that feminist or masculinist tone (sometimes called feminism and masculinism, other times progressive and conservative, sometimes democrat and republican, sometimes mainline and evangelical–all of which are meaningless if such descriptors find their meaning in aiding accuracy), such that women are fighting for liberation from the home and its warden and men are fighting to keep the women conjugally imprisoned, the argument invariably fails to take into consideration the possibility they’re both wrong. The reason it’s so sad is because they are both wrong. And the more they resist the truth, the more miserable they will be in their respective pursuits that aim the world toward homelessness.

We’re all created to be homemakers, which is both a practical job description of marriage and family but is also a way of life. It only takes walking into a house that has no spirit of home to know why this is so important. Home is a place where people are free to go and love to return. Even the most exotic trips find their culmination in the return home, where the memories can be gathered up and put in the family picture album, to be revisited along with the other explorations of the people who love to share the adventure of life together. But without the love of a place to return and a people to return with or to, the exploration of life is simply a quest for home. There is no ad-venture in life because there is nothing from which to venture forth. There is only wandering in a world without place, the lostness of Neverland, which is not a world of runaway children but a world of runaway parents.[1]

There are far more homeless children in this world than can be quantified by counting houses and kids. [Besides, “homeless children” refers to people of all ages.] We should indeed fight to keep food in bellies and shelters over heads, but I believe that if one were to adopt the principle life goal that is most pleasing in the eyes of his Maker, it would first be to become a homemaker, and second to become a host. Because that is what our Maker is: an impossibly hospitable Father and an amazingly gracious Host.

Hospitality is a topic increasingly making its way into contemporary Christian idiom, but it is misguided if the quality of the host or the house is not prioritized above hospitality itself—the quality of the host/home determines the value of being welcomed in. Nobody likes the hospitality of a person whose house, whose life, does not feel like a home. Nobody wants Hitler to assume the role of host again.

So become a homemaker so you can become a host with something worth hosting. You don’t have to be married. You don’t have to have children. You don’t even necessarily have to have a house—neither did Jesus. But you do have to love the idea of home—Jesus did (cf. Gen. 1-2; Rev. 21-22; Jn. 1-21). If you don’t love home, then you don’t yet understand who God is. You have not entered into his presence if you have not felt at home in his presence. For many, there could be no greater disappointment than to feel “at home” in God’s presence, if home always felt like hell or prison or an interrogation room or a cockfight. But neither God nor Home will be found in our memory of home from childhood. What we will find in our memory of home is a certain kind of heartache. It’s not associated with anything in particular in or about our childhood home—it’s the residue on all the furniture. And the unique thing about it is it feels like a longing both for the home we grew up in and the home we never had. God uses our broken memories to point our desires toward and unbreakable hope, like he did with his temple a long time ago. But Hope aches, and sometimes we despair of it and give it up. It aches so deeply for many, no matter the particulars, some will refuse to ever revisit the memory of it—living a life running away from it. We, each of us, are indeed orphaned into adulthood.

But if there is any latent longing that could possibly direct our steps toward God–and perhaps that is a big ‘if’–it will be found in that ache. It is homesickness, and it has driven the world mad in restless runaway pursuits.

But Jesus has come to the distant country to bring us ‘to our senses’ (Lk. 15) and show us the way home, the way to the Father. Follow him.

#imahomemaker

*Footnote

  • 1. This was the real point of the Peter Pan story and was actually captured quite well through Robin Williams character in ‘Hook’–the father who cared more for his job than his family, whose children were captured by a gaggle of childless men who live together on a drifting vessel fighting a perpetual war against fatherless children, the pirates (a society of male identity construed without reference to home or family). Peter wins the war not by returning to his boyhood and fighting to preserve the Lost Boys (which would be to preserve homelessness) but by returning to his fatherhood and fighting to bring his own boy home. It was a war against Neverland as such. Thus the battle could only be won by Peter killing the pirate he had become, which is obviously what every Lost Boy grows up to be, as Peter’s son Jack was becoming before his father came to rescue him, that is, before his father returned home. Homelessness begets homelessness.