Advent Reflection 4: Barren

[Zacharias and Elizabeth] were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. –Luke 1:7

Barrenness is of course a fertility problem. Biologically it refers to a womb that cannot support embryonic life. Agriculturally it refers to a land that cannot support plant life. Metaphorically it proves to be a rather portable word with any number of applications. It was evidently a favorite of the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who spoke of barren efforts and barren shores and barren crags and barren lives and ultimately of a barren Death:

Wiser there than you, that crowning barren Death as lord of all,
Deem this over-tragic drama’s closing curtain is the pall.

Lord Tennyson is right. Barrenness finds its way into every nook and cranny of this world and our experience of it. And that is because theologically barrenness is the state of creation this side of exile, the world East of Eden. God’s good world of Genesis 1 & 2 had already gone to seed under the stewardship of his image-bearers in Genesis 3 (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). And now we live, it seems, in two worlds, God’s world and our world, a world of good and evil. 

The world is thus duplicitous in its barrenness and beauty, its grandeur and terror, its tranquility and violence, its capacity to provide for the unseen sparrow and its capacity to turn to ice. We can neither escape echoes of heaven or the shadows of hell. Creation is groaning in both labor and suffocation, new births and burials by the minute, a sign (that is more than a sign) that Mother Nature is ever losing her battle with Father Time. Every birth certificate already shares its name with a death certificate. We live in a world and in bodies and in communities that simply cannot adequately support life. 

Every home, so rich with memory, will slowly grow empty and eventually the nest will be left all alone. No more children giggling their way into the master bedroom on Saturday morning. No frenzy of life in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day frantically filling every dish and basket and platter with an attempt to keep the past alive. No one to say “Mom” or “Dad” or “You’re grounded!” or “Pass the jam”–-just the occasional “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when the phone rings. Then calls come only for “Mrs.”, with condolences. Then the phone just stops ringing. Life inside the walls gives way to a damningly exact proportion of grief. But soon no one is even left to cry. What was once home to a family will eventually house only an empty memory, maybe a few moths. The world is our womb, and it is barren, every life a miscarriage. 

But there is something hopeful in all this, because we were not created to live in such a duplicitous world and to be such duplicitous creatures. The world was made to be good and we were made to be like God (Gen. 1). Would we really want God to preserve everything as it is, when the world is full of evil and we are full of godlessness, when nature is amuck with “natural” disasters and we will all die of “natural” causes, unless something “unnatural” kills us first? Would we not rather God burn the evil away and flood the void with light? Perhaps the sign of the times, then, is not that death is the conclusion to all human life but, more precisely, that death is the conclusion to all human evil. Indeed, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 7).

But our sin and death has not deterred God from finishing what he has started. He is still committed to making the world to be good and making us to be like God. We just have to be emptied of life, such as it is, before we can be filled with life as it will be. Nobody plants flowers in a bed of weeds or a thicket of thorns. Before there can be new life, there must be death. In this way, barrenness is about new beginnings.

Barrenness is not only the state of things after everything dies. It is the state of things before everything lives. Indeed, a womb must be empty before it can be filled, just as creation was formless and void before it was filled with light. But God not only filled the void, he created it (Gen. 1:2). He did not just hurl the world into a space sufficient to sustain it. He created it as a barren womb, a space he would himself have to fill in order for it to be filled with Life. Apart from him this world would only inevitably return back to its original, all-consuming barrenness, but this world is not apart from him—because Christmas. Because God was born into this world, this world can be born again. Our barrenness is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland but the womb of new creation. Emmanuel—east of Eden.

I used to think, wherever you find Jesus, there you will find no misery. But I’ve learned over the years it’s just the opposite: Wherever you find misery, there you will find Jesus. He says as much in some rather harrowing words about the sheep in his fold and goats in high places (Mt. 25). Emmanuel means God has come to us in all the barrenness of our exile, not that we have gone to him in all the grandeur of his celestial paradise. We will never find God in heaven because God has found us on earth, and it is here that heaven is coming (Rev. 21-22): here, in barren places; here, with broken people; here, where God is. 

And it has always been so: God comes where the efforts are barren and the ground is chapped. Slaves in Egypt became a nation in the desert. God had come. Out of barren wombs the child of promise is born to Sarah, the child of prophecy to Elizabeth, the “Voice crying out in the Wilderness” born to a father who could not speak. God had come. Out of nowhere the substitute came to Abraham for his son on Mount Moriah. Out of the Virgin the Substitute came to Israel for all sons on Mount Calvary. God has come.

And God is coming again. Isaiah says we’ll know it is God because the cracked desert floor will begin blooming like a daisy field in springtime; the groaning ground of the curse will suddenly burst into song (Isa. 35). Scorched war fields will become spring-fed gardens (Isa. 58); swords and spears will be beaten into the shape of life and kept in the barn (Isa. 2). He said that lions and tigers and bears would go vegan and siesta with lambs and yearlings (Isa. 11). There will be life where there could otherwise be no life, peace in a world of unrest, a symphony filling canyon winds. Paul says we’ll know it is God because when he comes he will lay death down to sleep, pray the Lord its hell to keep. We’ll wake up one day without aching joints and pressing deadlines. We’ll see mirrors we’re not ashamed of (1 Cor. 15).

John says we’ll know it is God because of what happens to the brokenhearted. The little boy whose dad was sent home in the form of a flag, the young mother of that boy looking helpless at his searching eyes; the little girl who never wore white. We’ll know it is God not because the brokenhearted will suddenly stop crying but because their tears will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). They will be touched by a real Hand and there will be a resurrection of real hands. Those searching eyes will find what they never stopped looking for. It will be like a world ruled by the real religion that James talked about (Ja. 1:27).

John also says we’ll know it is God because it will be like a Bridegroom and a Father and a Son and like a world full of siblings (Rev. 21-22), like wedding reception and a family reunion all at once (Rev. 19:6). It will just be a mess of an overflow. Loneliness won’t even fit in a crack on the floor. There will be no storm shelters or panic rooms, no sirens or seatbelts, no temples or mosques, no shut doors or closed countries, no walls, no gun control, no guns, no abortions, no greed, no partisanship, no voting booths, no border patrol, no arrogance, no bumper stickers, no child soldiers, no fatherless children, no websites, no spam, no shrapnel, no midnight calls, no divorce, no mistrust, no shame, no shadows, no small caskets, no more goodbyes: only God, only Light, only peace, only joy, infinite joy drowning the void beneath the weight of the “glory of the Lord that fills the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14), and us—with a Table there at the center to keep the past alive for good (Rev. 21:21-23).

When Christ comes, he comes to dethrone the one called “barren Death” crowned “lord of all.” The crimson of his crown will touch every tomb and burst forth in a bloom of roses. For He is the “firstborn of creation” (Col. 1:15) and therefore the “firstborn of the dead” (Col. 1:18). And he will again descend into this barren womb of creation, this time to bring forth life in an unbound abundance. When “the Lord descends from heaven…the dead in Christ shall rise” (1 Thess. 4:16). And on that day, the world will be discovered as an ultrasound devoid of any dark, as we all are born again into the womb of eternal life, together with the eternally Begotten Son of God. No more miscarriages.

When he comes…


Advent Reflection 3: Liberation

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth” (Luke 1:5).

It is “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” that the Gospel narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern-day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds in the field and the sheep and the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, as long as Herod was considered the king of Judea, the true King of Judea had not yet come.    

Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he never met that burning bush who knew his name. Moses was born to a family of Hebrew slaves but through a strange series of events was adopted by a family of Egyptian overlords. In particular, the daughter of Pharaoh, who happened to be the wealthiest and most powerful man on the planet, took him in as her own at a time when all the other little Hebrew boys were being tossed out. So not only was his life spared, but he now stood line to potentially be put in charge one day of some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living, slaving. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves but ultimately under the rule of Pharaoh. Herod was something like that: a Jewish “king” over a predominantly Jewish region but ultimately under the rule of Caesar.

But let’s just say Herod was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. For example, of his many wives, Mariamne I was his favorite—until he murdered her. And when he was first appointed king over Judea, he made his most respected brother the high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. Also, when the two sons e had with Mariamne I grew up, he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A redemptive gesture—until he had them both killed. He seemed to soften with age and so made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him killed too.

Then he died.

But before that, there was also that time the [not so] wise men inquired to him, the so-called “king of Judea,” about “the King of the Jews” being born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:2). Needless to say, there wasn’t enough room in Judea for two kings, so Herod had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17). And in so doing the “king of Judea” had, ironically enough, followed in the footsteps of the king of Egypt, an apple fallen not far from Pharaoh’s tree (cf. Exod. 1:22). You don’t have to be in Egypt to be in captivity.

So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Or, for that matter, is it American consumerism or is it my impulsive spending habits? Is it civil strife or the kind I find in my home, or the kind I hide in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the international pornography industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket?

The severest form of human slavery on the planet always comes in the form of the human will: “my will be done.” Luther called it “the bondage of the will.” We all, deep down, have a little bit of Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to keep on sinning. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except I don’t want to stop keeping a ‘record of wrongs’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5) and firing back comments that cut, sarcasm that covers. We all want to do God’s will, except we never want “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).

Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus, from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence. But there is no other freedom the Gospel offers.

Liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). But humans do not typically want this kind of freedom. We want control.

Control feels like freedom because control means “my will be done.” So it feels like freedom to the one who has it, but true freedom does not come at the expense of another’s freedom. Control does. Control is the kind of “freedom” Herod had. Control is the kind of freedom you can have by listening to your inner Herod. Pharaoh had freedom like that. And God had to rescue His people precisely from Pharaoh’s freedom, and now he would have to rescue His people from their own “king’s” freedom.

In Paul’s language, that inner Herod is called “the lusts of the flesh,” which always stands in opposition to the Spirit lusts within us (Gal. 5). You are home to a civil war. The inner Christ and the inner Herod are at war for your freedom, for everyone’s freedom. Paul says “It was for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The yoke of slavery, or the lusts of the flesh, inhibits anyone from living in freedom (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”), while the yoke of freedom, or the lusts of the Spirit, enables everyone to live in freedom (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”).

The Spirit lusts to give. The flesh lusts to take. The Spirit lusts to make us like Christ, so that others can be free of our tyranny. The flesh lusts to make us like Herod, so that others will live in our captivity, or wishful thinking at least. The Spirit lusts to free us from our slavery to self-service, the flesh lusts to “liberate” us from the freedom of self-control, which is the defining fruit of spiritual freedom. Self-control is the truest mark of freedom because the “self” is that little inner high-chair tyrant, Herod, that needs to die. Self-control starves your inner Herod. Faith in Christ means “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Self-control in the Spirit means “I die every day” (1 Cor. 15:34).

So perhaps today we could dare to ask ourselves: Who is living under the burden of my control? Do people feel free around me or do people feel the need to live up to my expectations, my will? Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me—or does it feel like Christmas?

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Advent Reflection 2: Remember

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-4). 

Barney: “Have you seen my shoes? I need to put them on before I go home.”
Me: “You are home, Granddaddy.”
Barney: “No I’m not. This is just where I’m staying until I go.”
Me: “But… I see…”

[So I helped him find his shoes.]

—A conversation with my grandfather

My grandfather was a minister for 64 years. He began showing signs of dementia many years ago. Since my grandmother passed, his mind has been slipping more rapidly into the void. Watching his decline, I have learned that the world of humanity consists in memories. I’ve also learned that memories are married to names. When one is lost, so the other, and whatever piece of the world went with them.

Of all the names that have fallen into that inglorious abyss, mine included, it was saddest to see my grandmother’s go. Never again will I get to hear the story about the first time he saw her, standing on a sidewalk in a white dress: “She looked like an angel.” Never again will I get to see her memory become wet in his grieving eyes only to be consoled back into laughter by yet another moment shared still in his mind. She was always visible as a glow in his face, even under the hanging weight of his grief. But now there is neither glow nor grief. That part of his world and that part of his face are gone. And I suspect, were it up to him, he would welcome the grief back in endless waves if only to salvage a few glimpses of his long lost angel, forgotten at sea. But she is lost to him.

But she is not lost. And she is not lost to him forever. Because the one Name that still puts color in his face and fills his mouth like lead is the Name of the One whose hands first joined them together. And His grieving hands are as stubborn as nails that refuse to let go of the dead. So my grandfather may not have my grandmother’s hand anymore to hold, but he still daily folds his hands in prayer—and he has never forgotten in whose Name his prayers are made. That world still belongs wholly to him, and he wholly to it.

From this vantage, he has forgotten nothing. For those who remember where they are going, not even a single drop of the past will be lost. 

It was this insight that prompted Luke to compile the memories of those who had seen Jesus with their own eyes. He wanted to offer the world a composite memory of the Man who carries the future in his hands, indeed all time in his Person (cf. Rev. 1:1-8). So sharing a secondhand memory of Jesus can lead to a firsthand encounter with Him. All you need is his Name (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20; Mt. 18:20). Jesus’ Name is God’s #📞 (Acts 2:21). That shouldn’t be too hard to remember.

Jesus is the eternal Word of God who became flesh and blood in order for to speak in a language we could understand. The infinite and eternal God became finite enough to fit in a manger and temporal enough to die on a tree. But neither time nor space nor death could ultimately contain him, and upon his return His Father, our Father in heaven, the Spirit of God was poured out in a global flood, so that “whosoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Jesus stands between all time and eternity, holding all things together, calling all things to himself. So there is nowhere and no-when that God is not present in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Presence without which there could be no presence, the Being without which there could be no human being, the eternal reality in which we participate on borrowed time, and toward which time will eventually terminate, or consummate—“for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). Unlike every other person, he does not exist merely as a series of moments in time, each one dissolving into the next until all is dissolved into death. This is how we experience the world and the world experiences us. Over time, our memories fill our minds like a ghost towns, haunting us, taunting us, giving form to our voids and voice to our groans.

But a memory of Jesus is a memory of the One who is always and everywhere present. To remember anything about what Jesus has done in the past is to know something about the One who holds the future and is seated beside you, and God, at present. Reading Luke’s memories of Jesus’ is like children hearing their aging parents tell stories about one another, about the days “long before y’all were born.” They share memories from a past in a way that enables their children to know their parents just a little more, and perhaps better recognize the rippling impact of their lives.

So Luke sits at the foot of the bed like a child and collects all the memories he can get his hands on and then weaves them together to reveal to us, or remind us, “all the things that have been accomplished among us” (Lk. 1:1). And to be reminded of what the Eternal God has accomplished among us is to become part of the “us” for whom and among whom Jesus has accomplished all the things. And perhaps through these memories we’ll get to know Jesus just a little more, and maybe better recognize the present impact of his life—and his future impact on all things, on us. 

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Mt. 1:23).

Advent Reflection 1: Wait

The Christian Year

ad·vent / ˈadˌvent: the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event; to come to

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
     Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).

The Bible concludes with this great historic cliffhanger. The first time Jesus came to this world he ensured us he’d come again to finish what he started. We are left on Scripture’s last page with two basic claims about the course of history and the fate of this world: Christ has come. Christ will come again. We are, at present, between the times. History has taken the shape of a promise and faith has taken the shape of waiting.

That’s what Advent is about. It is about waiting for Christ to come again. We practice that by waiting for Christmas Day. This begins the Christian Year. Today, the first day of Advent, is the Christian Calendar’s New Year’s Day. Christians don’t tell time like anyone else tells time. We believe Jesus Christ is sovereign over history and so time revolves around him. The Christian Calendar is thus organized around the story of Jesus, so as we relive his story year after year we don’t forget the story to which we belong. 

This was God’s idea in the first place. Israel was commanded by Law to tell time according to salvation history (Lev. 23). They organized their year around the story of their salvation from slavery, beginning with Passover and continuing with a total of seven annual festivals through which the people of God, in effect, reenacted their history—from the Exodus through the Wilderness and into the Promise Land. These festivals were not empty traditions. They were social education. They reminded the people who God is and where they were apart from him. This taught them to not depart from him. Reliving the story ensured they would remain in it. (For an extended explanation of the liturgical calendars of Israel and the Church, click here.)

Entering into the story of Jesus doesn’t begin with Jesus but by waiting for him, as Israel waited for him, so the Christian Calendar doesn’t begin with Christmas Day but with Advent. It begins not with an arrival but anticipation. Christmas without Advent is like an answer without a question, water without thirst, forgiveness without sin, Christ without Israel. So the Church Calendar begins with a season of waiting for Christmas Day to come like Israel waited for that first Christmas Day. Israel waited for that Day like their life depended on on it, like all history depended on it, like without it they would be lost, like without it the world would be lost. They were right. But it’s hard for us to wait like that. 

Jesus once said, “Be like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed is the those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes” (Lk. 12).

Waiting is hard work. Jesus described it here as the kind of work that allows us to hear. Like children with ears pressed against the bedroom door on Saturday morning waiting for mom and dad to get out of bed, it’s a kind of quiet anticipation. It’s called listening. The blessing in Jesus’ parable comes to those whose waiting was proved simply by opening the door when they heard the knock from the other side. This kind of listening is hard work because our kind of world is hard of hearing.

We live loud lives: wake up, screen on, eat and run, text and drive, bounce around, fast food, back home, screen back on, plate on lap, back to bed, earbuds in, wake up; rinse and repeat. We have one-click shopping. Pay phones have gone the way of the dodo. The Internet doesn’t make that intergalactic fax machine noise anymore. Now, it could be that all this on-demand efficiency is evidence of a culture that has discovered all that satisfies the longings of the soul—and made it all extremely available. Or it could be just the opposite. It could be an indication that we have found exactly nothing that satisfies our longings. It could be an indication that we’ve just resorted to an abundance of stuff that does not satisfy.
We are occupied and preoccupied with stuff that keeps us busy enough to never have to confront the hollowness we discover in the silence. Perhaps we’re afraid to press our ear against the door and do the work of listening, because the first thing we hear when we listen is precisely nothing. And when that is what we hear, we have to wonder if it is because nothing is there on the other side. We have to wonder whether God is dead or we are dying. And this makes us anxious. So we fill our lives with things do, places to go, a world to produce, a world to consume, a world to possess. And so in our efforts to consume an abundance of satisfaction we are consumed by an abundance of distraction–anything to avoid listening to the silence.
But shouldn’t the Church, of all people, have a different response to the silence? Shouldn’t the silence of Good Friday shape our longings more than racket of Black Friday?
The slaves in the parable who opened the door did so because they heard the knock, but the reason they heard the knock is that they were “waiting for their master to return.” It’s no surprise that the secular world celebrates our Christmas but wants nothing to do with our Advent. Whatever else we might think Christmas is about, Advent assumes it is about one thing: waiting for our master to return. Indeed, Christmas is only worth celebrating because Christmas is coming again.
This means that the one thing Advent happens to be about involves the two things our culture knows nothing about: having a master and having to wait. But that is surely because our culture, with which we are all too often complicit, has given up waiting on the things we long for most deeply. Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to listen to the grandiose size of our most basic longings—for universal peace, for boundless joy, for belonging across all tribes, tongues, and nations, for the reunion of all lost sons and daughters, for wholeness of a broken world and every broken heart, our longing for that all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience for we know not what—perhaps if we would listen to these basic longings we would begin to understand that we do not have the raw materials within ourselves to satisfy our most basic longings. And neither does the whole world and all that is in it. And when we can recognize that, we will have no choice but to wait. In that case, blessed will we be when our Master finds us ready to greet him at the door.
And that is indeed why we need Advent as much as we need Christmas—without the waiting, the listening, of Advent, we may never hear Christmas arrive.
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.


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


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

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

For the last 14 years Ringo has lived to acknowledge my presence. Before he lost his hearing, he would hear my presence before I ever entered the door, where I would find him already waiving at me with his tail. Even after he lost his hearing I often found him there, waiting and waving, who knows for how long. If he didn’t greet me at the door, the moment I walked into his field of vision he would perk up his big square head, struggle up with his little old legs, and carry his big long body over to my feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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…”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is no surprise, then, that the pain of my grief only found its exit at the sound of my own mother’s voice. She spoke—“Baby!”-–and commanded forth the death in me. She commanded to share in its pain. It only recently occurred to me that the strained sound of “concern” I could always detect in her voice toward me was actually only 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 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.

I don’t really remember thinking any of this in that moment, so I can’t really explain the association between her voice and my pain. I just remember the moment I heard her voice, the dam began to leak and almost immediately burst wide open. “O Jeremy…”, she flinched, and up grief arose from the abyss and aimed itself squarely in the direction of my mother. For I had intuitively found a willing tributary deeper than the Nile is long—and I and my dead baby and my bleeding wife and our agony were all already there, where she would agonize over both the loss of our baby and her Baby’s agony. Our tears were hers; we wept, she wept. She wept, I wept more. I felt like a baby and a miscarriage all at once. 

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:33-35). 

Until then I had been conceiving of this miscarriage simply in terms of absence. It didn’t feel so much like the loss of an otherwise presence beheld. 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 (or excuses for) 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 flanking her sides, trying their best to shield her, 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 to 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. 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 us, to Kadence:

“I’m coming for you.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Gen. 3:24.

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

[3] Gen. 4:7.