Advent Reflection 11: Low

[The reflection below is derived from a journal entry dated November, 2013]:

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

“He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those who are low” (Lk. 1:51-52)

I met Joyce on a Monday evening at Embrace United Methodist Church. For about five years I took a group of students to Embrace each month to help serve a community meal, to feast together, and to worship. Over the past few years we’ve developed some great relationships. Mary is my best friend there. She’s always taking my picture (not surprised). And she regularly holds up her newest picture of me on her phone next to a yellowed, wallet sized photo of her late husband, Dave, and asks (re: tells) everyone about the uncanny resemblance. The other day she used the word “reincarnation.”

But this was my first time meeting Joyce. I think Joyce is young, perhaps in her late thirties, early forties, but it’s hard to say. The age of her hair doesn’t match the number of years under her eyes. I’m afraid she has the quality of a face that has learned to love everyone but herself. She is quick to smile, even quicker to look down. Her eyes sink with her shoulders, low.

When I sat between her and Mary on Monday she was accommodating. Mary did the ritual with the phone and the picture. “I can see it,” Joyce convinced herself. (I look absolutely nothing like Dave.) We then began sharing our stories across the table. It turns out Joyce “grew up in this church. This is my church.” A number of churches had in fact passed through the building, but she knew her church as this building. I know, I know. “The church is the people, not the building.” But the fact is, the faithfulness of the building almost always outlasts the faithfulness of the people. People had not always been there for Joyce, but this building had. This was Joyce’s church. 

She spoke about her early days in the way you hear parents talk about children growing up too fast. Her words ached. They made me ache. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it had to do with the thought of Joyce-the-little-girl running up and down the halls and playing in the sanctuary. It had to do with the thought that there was a time when Joyce had a sanctuary. And it was the awareness that at some point along the way something happened to her, and that sanctuary was gone, or at least the girl who used to play in that sanctuary was gone.

And maybe it also had to do with the memory of Jeremy-the-little boy running up and down the halls in the sanctuary of the place I called ‘my church’ growing up. But the church I grew up in is now part of an irreversible and irretrievable past that I remember with the same ache in the deep part of Joyce’s eyes and the lost part of Joyce’s words. There was a time when I had a sanctuary, when I was a little boy at home in God’s big house. But at some point along the way something happened, and that sanctuary was gone, and that little boy decided to leave home and grow old. I have so longed to go to that little boy and reassure him, to get him to turn around, to stay, but I cannot. He is back there with that little girl. And now, here we are, older, lower. 

During our conversation Joyce was texting back and forth with someone. With each text she seemed to be getting more anxious, and the more anxious she got the more agitated she seemed talking about ‘old times’. It was as though her cherished past was in confrontation with her very heavy present. Then, out of nowhere, she exclaimed, “I heard the voice of God in this church! I heard the voice of God in that room over there!” She began to weep and repeated, “I heard his voice. I heard his voice.” 

“What did he say, Joyce?”, I asked. 

“I’m not done.” She said it resolutely. “I’m not done!”

I don’t know what that meant to Joyce, but I know she heard it. I know she believed it more than I think most people ever believe anything. I think she believed in those words more than she believed in herself. She believed it like she had to believe it, like if it weren’t true nothing is true, like if there’s no hope in what God is going to do then there’s no hope at all. I also know God said it to her, because that is the kind of thing God is always saying (cf. Phil. 1:6). But it’s something God says on a low frequency. It’s hard to hear God’s hope for the humble when you’re on top of the world, God’s hope for the future when you don’t need Him right now. 

When It first arrived, Caesar didn’t hear it. Pilate didn’t hear it. Herod didn’t hear it. Annas and Caiaphas didn’t hear it. Scores of scribes and Pharisees didn’t hear it. But Mary heard it. Elizabeth heard it. A peasant named Joseph heard it. A few pagan astrologists (the magi) and some fishermen heard it. Five-men’s-ex-wife-at-a-well and a woman caught in adultery heart it. The town drunks and tax-collecting traitors heard it. A thief on a cross heard it. All the children of the world heard it (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:16).

They all heard what God said to Joyce. It’s the message of Advent: I’m not done!  

The message of Advent is nothing if it is not hope in what God is yet going to do (1 Cor. 15:16-19). The world affords no shortage of false hopes, and sometimes we have to be stripped of them all before we find ourselves hoping in God. As Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “You may never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” But the good news is this: we do have Jesus, we do have hope. For Christ has come—and Christ is coming again!

So lay low, and keep listening.

And when it looked like the sun
was never going to shine again,
God put a rainbow in the clouds.


Advent Reflection 10: Laugh

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:39-45).

[The reflection below is derived from a journal entry dated December, 2016]:

I arrived back home in North Carolina yesterday to visit family en route to our new home in Washington State. I wasn’t certain I’d ever get to see my grandfather again. My mom has been taking care of him for the last fourteen years. He’s 95 (now 97, still kickin’). We came here a few months ago not knowing if he would make it through the night. But he seems to have found a second wind—for the thousandth time. So today I got to introduce him to my perfect daughter, Radley, his newest great granddaughter. As soon as he saw her he lit up with buckets of light and began to giggle. When we put her on his chest his laughter and light and life just spilled out all over the place. Mom and I got caught up in the moment. Everything did. We were laughing, they were laughing, the room was laughing, all the children of the earth and all the angels of heaven were laughing. The cosmos itself had cracked open in a fit of sidesplitting joy.

I suppose it was really just a very old man who has lost most of his mind amused by a very young girl who has yet to find most of hers. On the surface at least there wasn’t a shred of evidence of anything out of the ordinary, not even a speck of angel dust. And since humans typically forget to look beneath the surface, these aren’t the types of experiences we spend our lives pursuing or filmmakers spend millions of dollars trying to recreate. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t dramatic—and what even was funny? And yet, there we all were, swallowed up in the most naked and sincere laughter. It was somehow both forgettably unassuming and borderline apocalyptic. It was something like the Incarnation, the day the infinite God squeezed himself into everyday life and was “wrapped…in swaddling cloths and laid…in a manger” (Lk. 2:7). And it was exactly like every experience of God I’ve ever had.

I have personally never had an experience of God that was visible on the surface in any real measurable sense, like a person’s stump growing back into a leg or an Egyptian river turning into blood. But I did just two weeks ago hold out my hands and receive my daughter into this world. I did just this morning look down at her face and see her looking up at mine.

I fully believe God has and will continue at times to use Nile-sized miracles to reveal his unlimited power, but I do not believe that is what he is ordinarily most interested in revealing. I think he is still most interested in revealing himself through miracles the shape of the Incarnation, the truly God showing up in the truly human, like infants and old people, precisely because he wants us to pay attention to infants and old people, the least and the last—one of the only places we are ever really guaranteed to find him (Mt. 25:31-46). And that’s the only real surprising thing about God. No human has ever struggled to believe that God could be just as powerful as a god, but we have all struggled to believe that God could be just as powerful as a baby.

It was just this kind of disproportionality in the moment that suggested God was in the room. The two mismatched mothers-to-be, one too old to be a mother, the other too chaste to be a mother, standing belly against belly, giggling their way into a prophetic frenzy. It’s the kind of scene that can’t really be seen through the windowpane. You’ve got to enter into the miracle to see the miracle. You can’t hear the angels laughing until you start laughing. The waters only part when you step irreversibly into the flood (Josh. 3:11-16). It’s like the flag-wavers at church who are genuinely dancing in the Spirit while everyone else is genuinely distracted by the flags. The only way to ever start dancing in the Spirit is to start dancing.

By this point, Mary and Elizabeth and their unborn babies were all dancing around the room, “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “leaping for joy” (Lk. 1:41-44), while the whole world looks in through the glass. But from out here it still looks like little more than two women filled with child and a little too much wine. Until Mary opened her mouth and thunder came out (Lk. 1:46-55). There, with only a one-cousin-congregation, Mary stood up on the bar stool, raised her glass, and gave the most revolutionary speech in human history, the ‘Magnificat’, announcing that the Divine revolution had begun—in her belly. Granted, it was still in its embryonic form, a revolution that could still legally be aborted in our world, and sometimes it felt like little more than acid reflux, but it was here nonetheless. God was here. Emmanuel—in utero.

God refuses to be found in the places we insist on looking for him. The center of Israel’s temple and the top of Babylon’s tower both turned out to be empty. The farther away humans ascend from the world of the least and the lowest, the farther away they get from the world of the Most High God. The Incarnation reveals that there are a number of things humans care about that God doesn’t care about and there are a number of things God cares about that humans don’t care about, like infants and old people. Indeed, before “a Child to us [was] born” (Isa. 9:6), an unborn child to Mary was conceived. Surely God cared about at least that unborn Child, even before he was “viable.” And God made sure his mother was not sent to a nursing home just before he was laid in a tomb. Jesus loves the little children. Jesus cares about the old widow.

I once heard a wise man say that the health of a society can be measured largely by how its people treat the very young and the very old. The rapid emergence of abortion clinics and nursing homes in our society must say something about how we’re measuring up, or not. Not that nursing homes serve the same function as abortion clinics, but many who end up in nursing homes have been aborted all the same. At any rate, there is certainly something sickly about a society that struggles to find the value of life apart from its utility, its ability to produce and perform. There is something broken in a society that believes it owes nothing to the generation it depended on for life and feels justified in terminating the generation that depends on it for life. We are nurturing a social infrastructure that is effectively severing the life cycle at both ends, precisely where humans are most vulnerable, the least and the last, buffering our illusion of immortality, cultivating values that are not only inhumane but quite literally inhuman (cf. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death). We’re not taking care of ourselves. We are rejecting our former selves and rejecting our future selves, willfully neglecting the fact that we all were once the least and will all eventually join the last. And, at the end of the day, our refusal to live with “the least of these” is not only a rejection of our humanity, it is a rejection of our God (Mt. 25)—it is a rejection of Christmas.  

And for that reason, for the sake of Christmas, the Church simply cannot accept the status quo. We must embrace our humanity the name of the Incarnation and thereby embrace our God. We must embrace all of human life as sacred, lest we lose all the sacredness of human life. God-with-us began with an Unborn and remains with us unto death–precisely so that we can remain with him unto Life.

Most of the time God-with-us feels more like us than it feels like God. Most of the time it feels exactly as miraculous as taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves, like changing the diapers of ancients and infants. Most of the time the Incarnation just feels very carnal. But then there are times, right in the middle of the mundane, right between the two women feeling each others bellies, right between the face of an old man and the helplessness of a little girl, the heavens opens up and the splendor of the living God fills the room as the waters cover the sea. And you can’t help but laugh, because it feels just like Christmas.

Advent Reflection 9: Control

[After it was announced to Joseph that his life was spinning out of control: that his soon-to-be bride was about to have a Baby that wasn’t his, that he would have a Name he didn’t give, and that this sort-of-Son-of-his would ultimately die for sins he did not commit]:

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Mt. 1:24-25).

I hate airports.

[At this juncture, to avoid an altogether unnecessary rant please skip to the next paragraph.] It’s not even a love-hate relationship, like “I love the benefit flying affords the modern-day traveller but hate this or that aspect of airports.” It’s a pure hate-hate thing. I know it’s unreasonable, I know I’m a hypocrite because, yes, I will continue to travel long distances by plane rather than car or covered wagon, but still, I hate it all: the busyness, the restlessness, the confusion of constantly rushing and waiting all at once, taking my shoes off and laptop out, stickin’em up for that virtual strip search machine, the not-reclining until it’s somehow magically safe to recline upon reaching 30,000′, the speech about using the seat as a flotation device in the event that the plane nosedives 30,000′ into the earth, people in front of me reclining, the people in first class (it’s not you, it’s me), the in-flight smells, my borderline-claustrophobia-compounding-the-in-flight-smells, the blow-the-speakers loud *ding* followed by some redundant announcement and sometimes followed by nothing at all (especially on overnight flights—why?) other than thoughts better kept to self, the dried up snot, the ear issue, the $4.00-bottled-water-that-I-will-never-buy-but-over-which-I-insist-on-being-disgusted, the fact that somehow my departure gate is literally always at the absolute farthest end of wherever I happen to be at any given time in any given airport (and, for that matter, the fact that my invariably delayed flight(s) leave me (and my almost invariably pregnant-or-nursing wife and however many children I happen to have at the time) approximately 20 minutes to make it to the next departure gate (after taxying on the Tarmac for half an hour, waiting at least 10 minutes for the you-can-all-stand-up-now-and-wrestle-reach-for-your-carry-on-luggage-in-the-overhead-bin-at-the-exact-same-time-and-then-stand-there (touching…everyone is touching)-and-breath-down-the-back-of-the-person’s-neck-in-front-of-you-who-leaned-back-on-your-lap-all-flight-as-you-deplane *ding* to go off, waiting another 10-20-30 minutes for everyone else to deplane because I have too many kids to make hurrying a reasonable option)–I could go on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. 

More than anything, though, the reason I hate airports so much is that I love control so much. And most of that unnamable airport angst that I blame on any number of things (see rant above) is really caused by having lost all sense of control. People who love control hate losing their sense of control. This becomes most evident to me as I’ve noticed that something so banal as driving suddenly becomes the most satisfying experience of my life when I’m driving home from an airport—the feel of the (over-gripped) steering wheel, the feel of the (over-depressed) gas pedal, the cracking sound of whatever song I choose to blast through my (now blown) treble-heavy minivan speakers, the sense of immediacy between cause and effect, the sense of agency, the satisfaction of speeding and unnecessarily changing lanes and turning corners like Richard Petty in a stolen Honda Odyssey. Control.

[Just one more rant #sorrynotsorry: twice in one year I actually ended up renting a car and driving home to Kentucky from Chicago O’Hell, despite the added expenses and despite it (perhaps) taking longer to get home than waiting would have (although I’m not entirely convinced I wouldn’t still be there at this very moment had I not taken matters into my own very capable hands), because of delays, cancellations, delays that end in cancellations at 1:00 AM after needlessly sitting on the Tarmac for two and a half hours with erratic, restless, kicking, achy, moaning, crying kids, and a completely unreasonable flight attendant who threatened to report me to authorities for not forcing my children to remain seated for that two and a half hours, because it was unsafe, because it was raining outside (👈🏻 that actually happened), etc. I digress.]

Actually, I should say that I love the illusion of control and that commercial flying is always an active exercise in disillusionment. There’s typically no one you can blame and nothing you can do to actually change your circumstances in an airport. You are just a cog in a system of ever churning wheels: small, out of control. 

And that’s truer of everyday life than we’d like to admit. In everyday life where we drive cars and keep day-timers and make appointments–-and sometimes delay appointments and cancel appointments and live as godlessly as your everyday airport antics–-we find all sorts of people to blame and all sorts of things to do to bolster our illusion of control. But blaming a person can never change a person and the things we do rarely change what we most need to change, which happens to be the only thing we have any real power to change, namely ourselves. I can’t change, for example, flight delays and my flight attendant can’t either, but I can change my attitude toward her. I can treat her like a human being stuck in the same complex set of circumstances outside any- and everyone’s control. 

And perhaps that’s just the point. Perhaps God uses all the stuff we wish we could change but mostly can’t to reveal what he wants to change in us but often won’t–-because we won’t let him, because that would mean giving up what little control we actually have.

Consider marriage, for example. Hypothetically speaking, of course, there are at times all kinds of inner violence and turmoil and shame and discontent in my soul for reasons known and unknown. At the end of the day, most of that inner stuff is there because, directly or indirectly, I put it there and I store it there for safekeeping. Now, there are plenty of things within my power I can do change myself. I can, in the first place, confess out loud my sins to Jesus, who alone has the power to change me, and confess to my brothers and sisters in Christ, who can hold me accountable and hold my feet to the fire from time to time. I can humble myself and confess to my wife all that inner stuff that all too often comes out as irritability or coldness or withdrawing and almost always comes out as some form of blaming or projecting. I can recognize that she is 97% light and when I insist on seeing her 3% darkness what I’m really seeing is a mirror image of most of myself. What I’m really seeing is not something in her soul but something in my eye, not her speck but my log (Mt. 7:3-5). And perhaps the reason I insist on seeing that is because as long as the problem is located in her I don’t have to deal with the problem located in me. But that’s the only problem I really can deal with. I am out of control of everything else. 

In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that while I’ve spent most of my life trying to transform my circumstances, God has spent most of my life using my circumstances to transform me. I’m the circumstance that needs to change. I’m the bad attitude that needs to change the circumstance of the flight attendant having to deal with with an ungrateful patron. I’m the judgmental eye that needs to change the circumstance of my wife having to deal with her hard-hearted husband. I’m the short temper that needs to change the circumstance of my kids having to listen to a father who yells. I’m the greedy hands that needs to change the circumstance of a world who needs more open-handedness. I’m the problem. And If everyone on earth would take responsibility for that problem and focus on the changes needed to address it, perhaps the world truly would be changed. Perhaps airports wouldn’t be so miserable (they probably still would). 

But ultimately we can’t fix even that problem. We can’t really, fundamentally, change ourselves. We can, however, go boldly to the only One who by the power of his Spirit can and will change us, if we will be honest about our need for change and stop projecting it on the world in need of change. But to do that we must confess that we are broken, that we need changed, that we are the problem. 

And so that is my confession this morning. I am broken, I do need changed, and I am the problem. 

So what did Joseph do about his circumstances? He didn’t complain. He didn’t demand his money back. He didn’t become an embittered passive-aggressive husband who treats his wife as a conjugal object of his gratification. “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Mt. 1:24-25). 

“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Advent Reflection 8: Unplanned Parenthood

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 we were mentoring who was walking through a situation with her friend. Her friend was expecting, it was unexpected—an unplanned pregnancy. The alleged father was not answering the phone. Time was ticking.

She was terrified to get an abortion but more terrified not to. Besides the fact that her secret life would soon swell up and announce itself to the world, she would inevitably be kicked out of the Christian University she attended. And when she finally decided to confide in her mother, entertaining the notion of proceeding with the pregnancy despite 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. 

Our mentee told us that day her friend believed, ironically enough, she was left with “no choice” and so scheduled an appointment at the abortion clinic for the following week. In her mind, it wasn’t a pro-choice decision; it was a no-choice situation. Having no one else she could trust, she had asked her most loyal friend 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. Now her friend, our mentee, was confiding in us. And my half-hearted, half-brained offer missed the point altogether. It was based on the 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 Christian 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 that 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; it takes a village to murder 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). This young virgin was about to 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 on that fateful day, as she knelt weeping 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 is not nice Christian idea that amounts to little more than fellowship potlucks and familial pleasantries (although it absolutely includes potlucks!). The family of God is the Christian idea. The Son of God became Son of Man so that in him we might become children of God (cf. Rom. 8:28; Jn. 1:12-14; Heb. 2:10-15; 1 Jn., the whole book). 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 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 and supported, in a way that assures them they won’t be left alone to try to raise their children 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 you want some hard evidence to support this, see the postscript below!)

If we truly want young women to be no less than Mary for every unplanned pregnancy, we must become 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 Disciple were inconvenienced by others, perhaps even in the way their unplanned Son was inconvenienced by all of us. He, after all, was aborted by the entire human race in order to save the entire human race. 

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, would raise all of us, as though we were children of His own. Because in Jesus Christ “that is what we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).

“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).


With her permission and blessing, I am including a text conversation I had with a young gal named Clara late last year who was in my youth ministry back in Kentucky and whom Keldy and I discipled for a number of years. It begins much in the same way the conversation I opened with began. But it doesn’t end the same way. The difference: the unconditional love of Clara’s parents, the baby’s father, and a couple of amazing mentors, Anne Corey and Maria, who, in her words, kept “by [my] side” throughout the process, even when she was convinced she was going to terminate that process. I’ll let the texts and the closing picture speak for themselves.

Then–“go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37).

By this time, I had already long been in correspondence from WA with Anne Corey and Maria in KY (we were all loving Clara behind her back). We decided at this point it was necessary to tell Clara’s parents, against Clara’s request not to. Anne Corey gave her an ultimatum–if Clara didn’t tell them, she would. Well, Clara didn’t, and she did. And Clara, in her own words, “hated” Anne Corey for it (she doesn’t hate her anymore). But in stark contrast to the response from the parents in the story above, for Clara’s parents the immediate and ultimate–the only–issue was ensuring that baby lived! The issue wasn’t the potential impact it would have on Clara (or them) financially or educationally, nor was it maintaining a nice Christian facade for fear of what others might think (how many baby’s die for just that reason?!). So Clara’s pregnancy was met with a village-full of unwavering support and unconditional love from her parents. She later told me that if Anne Corey hadn’t told her parents, she “guaranteed” the outcome would’ve been different. What outcome? 

Below is the next text I got from Clara: 

Well, they ended up deciding against adoption. Here’s my most recent update.

Meet Clara and Henry and their little redhead bucket of joy, beaming with life, Beau Daniel 🙂

Along with this:

To Clara and Henry, Tim and Tracy (Clara’s parents), Anne Corey and Maria (Clara’s mentors), thank you for showing us what it truly means to be pro-life in the way Jesus is pro-life: through sacrificial love. May your story inspire us all to love people into life the way each of you contributed, together as the family of God, to loving little Beau into life.  

And especially to Clara: may your joy only continue to increase and your life become a living example and beacon of hope for the countless number of other young women who find themselves facing an unplanned pregnancy. May they face their pregnancy with the same courage and love and dignity you have shown in all this. God bless you and your beautiful family!

Advent Reflection 7: Today

And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Lk. 1:18-20)

The days were tired. Evening never came soon enough.  It’d been a long life under Roman rule. It’s not that Zechariah and Elizabeth were ready to die. It’s just that they weren’t ready to start a new life. It was time to slow down. They were at peace with God, they’d lived faithfully (cf. Lk. 1:6), and the burdens of the priesthood would soon be carried out by the next generation. Zechariah had spent these latter years training up young priests, seeing in their faces the son he never had. He’d already grieved that unanswered prayer. And then God answered it (Lk. 1:13).

God answers prayer in his timing, which is to say, not in our timing. Luke points out that Elizabeth and Zechariah were both “advanced in years” (Lk. 1:7). That’s another way of saying, “…too old and achy to even be thinking about having children.” They were at the age when you’re supposed to be able to spoil children, not raise them, to shake them up like a can of soda and give them back to their parents. But they were about to be the parents. And they were old. 

By this time, Zechariah’s mind was no doubt made up about a few things. He knew that the world’s treasures were peddled in smoke and mirrors and that human innovations usually amounted to new packaging of the same old empty promises. When he was young, life was charged with possibility. His favorite book of the Bible was Joshua. People had called his generation the “Joshua generation.” But he eventually realized that every generation gets called that. It probably has something to do with hope, maybe also regret. 

Truth is, Zechariah had long given up on that naïve faith in the future, or at least that a new future could begin today. His favorite book now was Ecclesiastes. It resonated. It’s not that he had lost faith in God. Indeed, he had faith the strength of an old growth forest, unmovable by the winds of change. It’s just that sometimes God is in the Wind (cf. Jn 3).

Are you sure you’ve got the right address? Zechariah says, in effect, to the angel Gabriel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man…” (Lk. 1:18).

Gabriel is annoyed.

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God…” (Lk. 1:19). How will you know? You will know when an angel who stands in the presence of God comes and tells you. That’s how you’ll know! 

So Gabriel shuts his mouth.

It is impossible to know why Zechariah doubted or exactly what the nature of the doubt actually was. Age was certainly a factor. But it seems to be about more than just a question of fertility odds. Gabriel said that his son would “be filled with the Holy Spirit…and come to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children…” (Lk. 1:15-17). Zechariah was a priest. He knew where that line came from. It’s the very last line of the Old Testament (Mal. 4:5-6), which, for Zechariah, was not yet “Old.” It was just kind of….“on hold.” For it to become “Old” would require a number of certain promises to be fulfilled, and Gabriel had just told him that the first of all (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20) those promises was about be fulfilled in his elderly wife’s womb. And if that were being fulfilled, everything was about to be fulfilled.

Could that really happen…today? 

Zechariah had spent his entire life learning how to believe that God’s promised future would happen—in the future. We all think Jesus is going to come back in the future, but I imagine we’d be just as surprised as Zachariah if that future arrived today. Well, that’s what happened to Zechariah. Maybe the Joshuas of the world are ready for a revolution today, but today Zechariah would do well to have his knees replaced. He identifies more with Methuselah than with millennials. At this stage, it’s time to settle down and begin letting go, trusting that God will fulfill his promises in some distant tomorrow. But God is no respecter of day-timers. Retirement would have to wait. Tomorrow was at hand.

For nine months this teacher of the Law will be unable to speak. He’ll have more ‘quiet time’ than usual, to say the least. Maybe he’ll start reading Joshua again. Now mute, he’ll have to be removed from any ordinary social roles. More importantly, his priestly duties—teaching the Covenant, service at the altar, temple staff meetings—all those things will have to be put on hold, because all those things are now growing “Old.” 

It’s no wonder that when he does open his mouth for the first time after nine months it is no longer as a priest but as a prophet. Priest’s were echoes of Israel’s past. Prophets were bullhorn’s of Israel’s God, who always speaks in the present tense. 

“Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying…” (Lk. 1:67ff). 

And out came in concentrated form the announcement that all of God’s promised future was at hand (Lk. 1:67-79). The entire priesthood would henceforth be silenced, because a Lamb was coming prepared for the slaughter, and He would need no assistance at the altar (cf. Heb. 7). The old institutions were passing away, behold the whole world was becoming new (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

It’s easy to believe in the God of yesterday, it’s easy to believe in the God of tomorrow, but it’s hard to believe in the God of today. It’s hard to believe that God will speak today, act today, answer prayer today, change our hearts and our habits and our homes today. But God will always, and will only, work in our lives and in our world today.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:7, 15).

Even the day Christ comes back will be a today like any other. If you only ever expect Christ to come back some distant tomorrow, or even the next tomorrow, you may never learn how to listen and look for the way Christ is showing up every today. Are you expecting Christ to come today? 

“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

~ Author Unknown

Advent Reflection 6: Expect

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John” (Luke 1:11-13).

They’ve been waiting. They’ve been remembering. They’ve been preparing. And now they are expecting.

But let’s be honest, this wasn’t expected (hence Lk. 1:18-20). Even though it was an answer to prayer (cf. Lk. 1:13), it wasn’t one of those prayers you really expect God to answer, like a ‘traveling mercies’ prayer, or that wildly daring one about food being miraculously transformed into “the nourishment of our bodies.” This was a specific prayer. That’s the kind of prayer that leads to trouble, because as soon as you start asking God for specific things to happen, especially things that don’t ordinarily happen, you then run the risk of God specifically saying no. Specific prayers are fighting prayers.

Keeping our prayers generic helps us preserve a professional distance. Nobody’s personal space is violated. Nobody has to expect much from anyone. Praying for God’s will to be done in Elizabeth’s life is one thing, but praying that God would put a baby into Elizabeth’s barren womb is quite another. The answer—yes or no—is empirically verifiable. Everyone’s personal space is violated, God’s, Elizabeth’s, and the one standing in the gap between them trying to build a bridge between heaven and earth. Prayer like that has no social boundaries. That’s why most of us don’t pray like that. We’d rather just agree to live parallel lives and avoid the discomfort that often comes at the intersection.

God answers prayer. God does not answer prayer. Both statements are true.

Word it however you want to try to soften it or stick up for God—“God answers every prayer, just in ways we don’t understand”—but that does no good. That’s just an excuse to never look God in the eye. Sometimes God’s response is precisely no response. Sometimes the Truth is revealed in the eyes of Silence. Just ask Pilate (cf. Jn. 18:38).

Nor is it true that if a prayer hasn’t been answered the problem is the faith of the praying person. The problem is that God didn’t answer the prayer. The only thing worse than people who smear every prayer into an enigmatic “yes” are those who lie about the unambiguous “nos.” I’ve heard people talk about prayer as something that only needs to be “claimed,” as though God had no say in the matter, as though God were not a living and active and real Person, as though God were not free. I’ve even heard people lie about God answering prayer. I’ve seen ministries based on that lie. Those ministries are not about God acting. They are about people acting like they are gods. They are about people reaching up into heaven’s treasury and grabbing whatever the heck they want—if only their faith is tall enough. But human faith gets little larger than a mustard tree. And sometimes God doesn’t answer prayer. People who say God answers every prayer are people who have never prayed.

But Zechariah prayed. And he prayed at the intersection. That’s where my mother prays too. Zechariah prayed for a son to be born who could not be born. Elizabeth was barren. My mother prayed for a son to be found who was irreversibly lost. No enigmatic yesses were possible. God would answer her prayer or God would not. And for at least twelve years, from the volatile ages of 10 to 22, he did not.

I was recently preparing on a sermon about the way people are led to faith through the faith of others (cf Mk. 2:1-11), so I texted my mother (because that’s what sons do when they need something from their mothers—they text them) and asked her what it was like “when your family was going to hell in a hand basket. Please email response.” Below is an excerpt from her response:

Subject line (all caps): “NEVER CONSIDERED FOR ONE SECOND ‘TO HELL IN A HAND BASKET’” (reprimanding tone noted).

…I knew God wanted you more than I did. So, while I was extremely concerned, sad, and experienced many sleepless nights, I never really landed on the thought you would be lost. My prayer life deepened so much during that time to the point of wordless groanings and moanings too deep to be uttered (Rom. 8). But I knew God was faithful…

The curious thing about my mother’s unanswered prayers is that they did not have a distancing effect but a deepening effect. With each unanswered prayer she dug down deeper into God’s heart, so as to say, “Fine. Then I’m moving in—and I’m bringing all my burdens and my baggage with me. And I’ve got A LIST of names!” Her prayers moved from trusting to entrusting. She stormed into the heart of God and drug my name with her day after day after day. I tried my hardest to go to hell, my mom just wouldn’t let me.

I once heard my father in-law say, “Even when you don’t see the hand of God, you can always trust the heart of God.” The only people who say things like that are people who actually pray, because they know the hand of God has a mind of its own. But ordinarily a person’s heart can only be seen through their hands, for hands are expressions of the heart. But this or that answer to prayer can never communicate the depths of God’s heart. And it may threaten to bring us to look only for God’s hand. 

That’s what happened to the Exodus generation. They starting out “groaning” into God’s heart (Exod. 2:23-25) and quickly ended up “grumbling” at God’s hand (Exod. 16). They cried out for freedom and God “brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Dt. 26:8). But rather than being drawn closer to God’s heart they got addicted to his hand. After he gave them freedom from Egypt they began to turn on him because he wouldn’t give them food from Egypt. They had apparently forgotten the cost of “the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing” (Num. 11:5)–it was the cost of freedom. Pharaoh wanted to keep meat on those temple-building bones. 

So God reserves only one place his hands can forever be called the perfect expression of his heart (Jn. 1:18). It’s the one place he commands everyone to look to see his heart right through the center of his hands (Rom. 5:8). It’s at the intersection, where Christ closed all the gaps. That’s where God prays. (Lk. 23:34).

Prayer, then, is intended to draw us closer to the God whose heart is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is like a tuning fork for our prayers. A tuning fork is tuned to only one key. It will vibrate if it gets close enough to something else vibrating in the same key. This is called resonance. St. Augustine once said, “You have made me for yourself, O Lord, and my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” He was talking about resonance.

Whether it knows it or not, the human heart is restlessly trembling in its longing for a gracious God. That trembling feels like fear, and it should, if in fact God is God and we have sinned against him. And, in fact, he is and we have. That revelation can change the way to think about your next breath. For it is indeed “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:35). But, it turns out, the cross is the place where trembling sinners find resonance with a terrifying God, because it is there they discover grace, amazing grace indeed. 

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed

God has one Word to so say to this world, and he wrapped It in swaddling flesh to say it (Jn. 1:14-17). In so doing, that enfleshed Word became receptive to God on our behalf. In Christ, we are tuned to the key of God. But this is not a new note. It was just hard to hear the heart of God before Jesus came. But David heard it. David’s salvation didn’t come by asking God “into his heart.” It came by storming his way into God’s heart. David took up residence there. Where else could he go? The Law condemned him. But God didn’t. That’s why you can hear the Gospel resounding before it even sounded in Psalm 51. Resonance.

God uses prayer to bring us close enough to himself that our hearts get in tune with his, because that’s how he changes our hearts. He shakes the grace into us, and so makes us gracious. We begin to care about the things he cares about. In time, it’s the life of prayer itself that proves God is gracious and can therefore be trusted with everything, indeed that we can entrust everything to him. Even a wretch like me (and you) has found a place right at the center of God’s heart, held firmly in the holes in his hands. We come to know God’s heart when we resolve to bury ourselves inside it, baggage and names in tow. The more time we spend with him, the more we know his heart; the more we know his heart, the more we know we’re all in good hands. Even when the answer is still no, even if I am being marched to the sepulcher, even when the sun forebears to shine—Even so…Amen.

But then, one day, God answers—because God does answer prayer—and the circumstances are changed. Zechariah’s world is changed. Elizabeth is expecting. And frankly, he wasn’t really expecting it. But we’ll deal with that tomorrow. 

For now, amen.


Advent Reflection 5: Prepare

Now while Zacharias was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord” (Lk. 1:8-9). 

Waiting. Remembering. Preparing. Such was the life of Zechariah the priest. Waiting—because it was still “in the days of Herod, king of Israel” (Lk. 1:5). As long as Herod was Israel’s king, Israel’s King had not come. Remembering—because that was his priestly duty. The priests were tour guides of Israel’s memory. But Israel’s memory was not a museum. Israel’s memory was not only filled with all that God had done but also with all God had promised to do. So the priests were called to be the living memory of God’s promised future. They were called to remember, and so prepare

There are different ways of preparing. It all depends on what future you are preparing for. A person who prepares for a race runs. A person who prepares for a dinner cooks. A person who prepares for a test procrastinates studies. Indeed, some ways of preparing for the future are better (or worse) than others. Martha Stewart once prepared for the future by selling her shares in a stock, for better or worse.

I suppose by a certain stretch of the imagination Zechariah’s preparation was something like Martha Stewart’s. He’d been tipped off. He knew where to put his stock, and where not to. He knew not to put any stock in the kingdom Herod was trying to build and prepared instead for the one God had promised to bring. But how does one prepare for that–a promised coming kingdom? 

Jesus once said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Lk. 16:10). I suppose preparing for a promised coming kingdom is all about the “little things”, being faithful in the “very little” of today because God is taking care of the “very much” of tomorrow. Believing that God is taking care of the big things frees us to live small lives of everyday faithfulness. Zechariah lived like that. He wasn’t known around town for much of anything. Just another priest, not even the “high” one. But he was known by God. Luke said he was “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the statutes and the commandments of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). That may not make the headlines in our nightly news, what with all the big and important things being reported, but God took notice. God takes notice of everyone who lives “before God” (Lk. 1:6), who prepares for the future by living for the One who promised to bring it. 

If faith were an arrow, it would not be pointing up. That is the popular way to think about faith, likely because up never leads back down to earth, where my boss and my habits live. Faith is far more comfortable in the clouds than it is on Monday morning. But faith is a forward arrow (Heb. 11). It doesn’t point to an ideal. It points to a path. Jesus didn’t say fly away with me. He said follow me. He said, “Lo, I will be with you on Monday” (Mt. 28:20, paraphrased). Faith is found in the “little” things, like my attitude at the office, or at home where only my family and God have to put up with me. That’s where my faith lives, or not. If we are going to prepare for the coming of Christ, it won’t be up there with my exceptions but down here with my rule. It’ll be on Monday. Jesus is coming back on Monday.  

Zechariah was caught “walking blamelessly” through everyday life as he headed to the office that Monday morning. You can tell it was a Monday because Luke says “his division was on duty” at the temple (Lk. 1:8). Duty is Monday talk. That day the lot fell on Zechariah to go into the temple to offer prayers and burn incense. And when he did he saw an angel. The angel told him his barren wife would give birth to a son. He was to name him John. It was an exceptional moment. But Zechariah didn’t arrive at that moment because he was having an exceptional day. He hadn’t specially prepared to receive a miracle from God that day. It wasn’t at a healing conference or a prayer retreat. He wasn’t on a pilgrimage away from ordinary life. He was on duty. He arrived at this exceptional moment because he was living by his everyday rule: to be prepared for God to come on any day of the week, especially the first day of the week.

Maybe that’s why Zechariah was chosen to be John’s father. Maybe all history was waiting for a father like Zechariah, a man of duty and everyday discipline, to raise a son like John, because John would have a special assignment. The angel told Zechariah his assignment would be to “make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1:17).

Like father, like son: “A voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” (Jn. 1:23).