Advent Reflection 21: [The Missing] Gift

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt. 2:10-11). 

Today’s reflection will be in audio form. It comes from last year’s Christmas Eve service. I had hoped to have it transcribed for today’s reflection but ran out of time. Even if you were there, it may be worth another listen, if for nothing else but to have another laugh at the thought of Steve Robinson in diapers 🤭.

  • To access the audio file of The Missing Giftclick here.

  • If you would like to read an old Advent reflection I wrote on Hope instead, click here.

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Advent Reflection 20: Darkness

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”


Originally Titled “Dying in the Womb of Triune Love: Mothers, Fathers, and the Faceless Pain of Miscarriages”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Baby!”

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

“Oh Jeremy…”

“Jeremy?”

I couldn’t speak. It was as if up to that point I had been taking in 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.

 

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. 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 invited to make ourselves at home. Our tears were her tears; We wept, she wept. She wept, I wept more. I felt like a baby and a miscarriage all at once. 

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—it is the promise of Christmas:

“I’m coming for you.” 

Advent Reflection 19: Light

The following reflection is a special guest post from my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. It is a beautiful story that demonstrates how the light of Christ often shines brightest in the darkest of places. For more of her writings, you can buy her first book on Amazon (also a great stocking stuffer!): click here for link.

A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 2:32).


Originally Titled: Captive

I sat in the cold, stone room for what seemed like ages anticipating their arrival. Curiosity and nerves were competing for first place in my typical over-emotional state. Being a ‘feeler’ can be exhausting.  It’s difficult to explain what a typical daily emotional roller coaster a ‘feeler’ has to ride.  I can go from crying tears of injustice to laughing hysterically at situational ironies in a matter of minutes. There has been no greater invention in recent years than the emoji, which helps solidify every single text I send. Without it, my text recipients are left to wonder my true feelings.

The room was cold.  It was silent.  Eerily silent.  I was curious. Or nervous.  And then a sound of a low steady hum slowly emerged from the silence.

The prisoners were coming.

My mom and I, and an inter-denominational makeshift congregation, were in the bowels of Raleigh Central (maximum security) Prison awaiting the arrival of the convicted felons and those men who had chosen to minister to them. This was the closing ceremony of a three-day spiritual renewal experience for the prisoners. Michael (ChristiAnna’s husband) was a volunteering minister.  I came to support Michael.

I fully expected to be consumed by discernment, the prickly hairs on my neck to stand on end as I met the roughest of the rough.  The vilest of offenders.  The rapists.  The murderers.  The thugs and thieves.  I fully expected that I would be accosted and undressed by their vicious eyes.  I expected to be disgusted and nauseated at the thoughts of what had put them behind those bars and barbed wire.  I fully expected that.

The soft hum was gaining volume.

It was a song.  A familiar one.

Finally, it grew to decipherable lyrics…

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and His grace.
I can hear the brush of angel’s wings,
I see glory on each face. 
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

Their deep, modulated voices created so pleasing a sound that it shattered my expectations and I was filled with conviction. The voices became louder and their echoes filled the prison walls from end to end. Tears flooded my eyes and I wept at my pride. They continued to sing upon entering the room, and though I tried, I could not distinguish between the captive and the free. Instantaneously the barriers created by past mistakes and current condition were vanished, and I can’t articulate in mere words the serenity that was in that place. We were one. One Body. A royal priesthood.  Surely, the Lord was in that place.

One by one, the men gave their testimonies.

One by one they shared how they had experienced God that weekend. One by one they shed tears of repentance. And tears of grace, received.

A young man stood to share. His calculated gate was evident as he took his place at the mic. His hair, in dreads to his shoulders, covered his brow. He hung his head. After what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his head to speak. I’ll never forget that face. Seven years later, I can still see it as vividly as a photograph in my mind. His cheeks were round, his eyes – soft and round and brown, not cold. Warm. InnocentIt was the face of a child.  Your child. My child. I was immediately drawn to him. My maternal instincts flared so abruptly, I nearly approached him to sweep his hair from his eyes. I showed incredible restraint and stayed seated.

“My whole life’s been hard,” he began, as his voice cracked.  He had to pause and wipe a tear from his bright, right, brown eye.

I had to compose myself as well, in order to collect the puddle that had become of my body on the cinderblock floor.

I saw his life.  I saw my life.  I saw my mother gently tucking me into a warm bed and kissing my forehead.  I saw him alone and cold and unattended.  I saw my dad walk beside my bicycle as I learned to peddle on my own, giving instruction all along the way. I saw him walking the streets, alone, figuring out life as he passed through it.  I saw my mother dropping me off at the front door of the school.  I saw him being schooled on the street.

I saw exactly how he came to be where he was.

That day I was given a new set of eyes through which to see the people God created.  The lost, hurt, broken, rejected, outcast, forgotten ones.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The need for my own repentance overcame me, and I had to seek forgiveness for my hardened, judgmental heart. I thought I had gone there to let my little light shine. And when the blazing fire of Christ entered the room through praise and testimonies of the prisoners, I realized it was I who had been captive. That I needed to be set free—free from the bondage of judgment and pride and self-righteousness. Free to love fiercely, mercifully, and unconditionally just as He has loved me.

That day changed me. That day I gained the audacity to believe that Jesus could make all things new, even a wretched, captive, sinner like me.

Advent Reflection 18: Salvation

Please see Advent Intermission: Disclaimer regarding forthcoming reflections, if you have not yet: click here.

irony

 “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law,  he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
     according to your word;
 for my eyes have seen your salvation
     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Lk. 2:25-31). 

Below is a journal entry from Kezek’s first day of kindergarten, dated September 7, 2017, under the heading “Kindergarteners, Heroin Addicts, and the Gods”. It was a day I found myself “waiting for the consolation” Israel was waiting for, a day I found myself longing to see with my own eyes the salvation Simeon saw with his.


This morning I sent off my son to his first day of kindergarten and headed off to work. Upon arrival, I met Pastor Eric retrieving a needle from the roof to add to the cookie jar of despair. The bus is filled with hope and futures, the jar with hopelessness, futures buried alive.

I left this morning watching my son’s mother offering up to God the kind of tears that somehow prove the goodness of the world and the meaningfulness of life. But I wonder about the mother’s tears that are falling to the ground today from a heart that needle has pierced. I wonder, with dread, what it is like to see a child bury his future alive, what it is like to anticipate burying a child dead. How does a mother hang on to hope as she watches her son let it go, when her hope is so bound up in the future of her children

Maybe she couldn’t hold on. Maybe she just couldn’t produce enough tears to fight back the famine claiming her family’s future. Maybe she was fighting alone, no father’s tears wetting her son’s heart, no husband guarding hers. Perhaps her heart, chapped and exposed, over time cracked open with so many sorrows that her soul has fractured into sand. The tears she so faithfully offered up for so many years, alone, never yielded a future in the life on whose behalf she offered them, only more God-forsaken thorns, only more of that entangling thicket slowly wrapping around her son’s neck, crowning its victory over his future, her future. Her tears never found their way to a Garden. The all-consuming ground is dried up of any goodness, fertility, newness. It’s all just burial ground.

Who among the gods will come to such a world? Let him come.

Who among the gods will come to such a mother? Let him come.

Who among the gods will come to such a son—as a man caught up in the thickets, to wear his crown, to be damned into the desert floor? Who among the gods will come to this world, to be chapped, broken, buried?

For there can be no other world for this mother and her son, so there can be no other God for this world.

 “The wilderness and dry land shall be glad;
     the desert shall rejoice and blossom like wildflowers.
     It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…
     And they shall see the glory of the Lord,
     the majesty of our God” (Isa. 35)…

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes” (Isa. 61)…


Then so be it. But if this world is not being disposed of and replaced—if it is the wilderness that shall be glad, the desert that shall rejoice, the mourners that shall be comforted, then the glory of God must first be dried up and deserted, must first rain down only in a veil of tears. If Beauty is to rise up from the ashes, it must first be burnt down to the same. But who will come to have his Majesty crowned with a curse, his Highness buried with all futures lost?

For if a new song of rejoicing is ever to arise from the parched ground of this disheartened world, it will have to enter at first in tune with a symphony of sorrows.

Who among the gods is so willing? Who among the gods is there with a heart like that for a world like this, a God of sorrows, Man of sorrows?

Then let Him come. Jesus, come. 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

Advent Intermission: Disclaimer

I feel it necessary to provide a disclaimer for the forthcoming reflections as we near Christmas Day. The goal of Advent is to whet our appetite. As I mentioned in our first Advent Reflection, contrary to our culture’s commercialization of this holiday season, Advent is about anticipation, not arrival, and just so is intended to heighten our appreciation of the arrival of Christmas when it comes. Looking forward to anything is half the joy of its arrival. 

But the anticipation of Advent is not simply an attempt to heighten our appreciation for the arrival of Christ’s first coming; it is also, and more centrally, an attempt to heighten our anticipation of Christ’s second coming. A Christian is a person who believes both that Jesus Christ has come to offer us salvation from our sins and is coming back to complete our salvation by judging the world in righteousness. Advent, then, is intended to orient us to the future we are called to anticipate, to hope in, and to invest in, so that we do not waste out time and our investments in false hopes and dead-end futures. 

With that said, in keeping with the true spirit of Advent, as we near Christmas Day the goal of these reflections is to increase our longing for the return of Christ. So if these reflections seem to be moving away from the Christmas spirit, I can assure you the movement is intentional and, in my best judgment, is moving us more deeply into the true Christmas spirit, not away. The world darkens before the Light comes (Jn. 3:19). But as the days grow dimmer, hope becomes clearer. May God help us learn how to long for him.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel…

Advent Reflection 17: Gift

kezeks-first-communion

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lk. 2:22-24).

Under the Old Covenant, God claimed the firstborn son of every Israelite. They were required to bring him to the temple and offer a sacrifice to “redeem” him back as a sign of how God saved them from slavery in Egypt, a sign of Passover. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be offered up to the Lord, but redeemed from him, the story takes a turn. A man full of the Holy Spirit named Simeon intercepted their firstborn and declared, “My eyes have seen [the Lord’s] salvation…Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (cf. Lk. 2:25-35). Mary and Joseph would not offer a sacrifice to redeem their only begotten Son back, because it turns out this was not their offering to God but God’s offering to them, to us all. God had sent his only begotten Son as a sacrifice to redeem back all the children of the earth. A new Passover had arrived. 

It is no longer necessary to offer any sacrifices to God but only to remember the sacrifice he offered—offers—to us, and to give him thanks for it. We do this by obeying Jesus’ command of continuing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, also called Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist, which translated means, “Thanks.” This is the new economy of the New Covenant. When something is offered as a Gift, the only response is gratitude. 

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks (eucharisteo), he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:19-20).


Originally Titled: First Communion (March 3, 2015)

I remember the first time I received Holy Communion.

Growing up, I belonged to a Quaker church. Quakers are really into the Spirit of Jesus so they don’t bother with the commands of Jesus to baptize people and share the Lord’s Supper together. That all just amounts to foreplay and they’d rather get straight to the Spirit behind all that common, fleshy, incarnate stuff. My father had been a Quaker pastor in the early years, but he had by this time quit being a Quaker pastor and resigned to being a part-time father. And this makes my first experience receiving Holy Communion all the more bazaar.

It was in a Roman Catholic church and I was there with my father. I think my sister ChristiAnna was there too. We were quite young. I am pretty sure it was our first time stepping foot in a Roman Catholic church. It was, at any rate, the first time I ever felt the two extremes that characterize holy places—I felt at once like I absolutely did and absolutely did not belong there, which is exactly how grace feels.

But I don’t remember the entire experience. Everything I remember is tethered to the moment I received the Elements. A certain taste lingers. 

Vaguely, the memory begins with my father insisting that we proceed from the pew toward the altar. He explained that we would be breaking the house rules by doing so, but only in the name of some other House and some other Rule. I don’t remember the details to that. I just remember that it was my responsibility to act as though I were entitled to receive whatever they offered me up front.

I remember feeling the feelings of a song I had long sung. My heart was filled with the tension of fear and fear relieved the whole time, which is exactly how grace feels and perhaps why it feels amazing. The priest made his way along the altar eventually arriving in my space. It however felt as though I had arrived in his space, or at least Someone else’s space. I can understand why some people take off their shoes in holy spaces. Its because it feels like inhabiting Someone Else’s shoes.

When I reached out and grabbed the wafer, breaking protocol (you’re supposed to receive it passively), three things were immediately clear. First, I had never done this. Second, the priest knew I had never done this. But perhaps in the way only a priest or a father could communicate this without saying anything, the third thing that was as clear as day was that this priest was glad I was there and happy to help me break the rules. Apparently he and my father imagined some other present Order in that very Present moment.

The wafer tasted like cardboard and had a similar texture too. The wine was so bitter, probably because I had never tasted wine or more probably because that’s kind of how blood tastes. (No wonder we were Quakers.) But this wine has never ceased to linger in my memory like only the best wines linger. And it lingers sweetly. It is a favorite memory of mine. Maybe it was the strangeness of it all, the beauty of the cathedral, the fact that I was with my dad—I loved being with my dad—or with this priest—he really was fatherly in his own right. Whatever it was, it was real like a rock and sweet like my mother’s love, and I wouldn’t trade the memory of it for all the cathedrals in Rome.

So you can perhaps imagine how I must have felt last night when I was given an opportunity to stand in the place of a priest as a father and serve my firstborn son Holy Communion. We had just heard a wonderful sermon at Embrace United Methodist Church by John Gallaher on Mark 2 about the man who was lowered by his friends through the roof to receive healing from Jesus. The faith of the community brought the man to Jesus and Jesus gave him more than their faith had asked for. Jesus forgave his sins and proved he could do so by healing his body. The religious leaders complained, but the man carrying his mat walking out the door did not complain. Neither did his friends. Faith always expects something from Jesus, but genuine faith does not complain about the mess of the overflow. I am not a Pentecostal, but I do not complain about Pentecostals.

During the sermon, Kezek would not sit still, so I made paper airplanes to keep him busy. By the end of the sermon we had an entire fleet. John had asked a couple of us to serve Communion before the sermon, so after he finished Meredith and I proceeded to the front. Megan and Kezek got in line. Megan guardrailed Kezek forward. When he arrived at the front, Meredith knelt down, extended the loaf toward him and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” He reached out and grabbed a piece as though he were entitled to do so. He seemed to know exactly what to do according to the protocol of an open Table, according to some unspoken but known Rule of some unseen but present House.

He then took a couple lateral steps toward me. I knelt, extended the cup, and said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you, Kezek.” He looked at me I swear with a new set of eyes—like I was the same old father but also someone brand new—dipped the bread in the cup, put it in his mouth, took a few more steps and, without instruction, knelt down on the altar (even though most in line were going straight back to their seats after receiving the elements). He knelt there like it was exactly where he belonged. He miraculously stayed still for about ten seconds while the King of the Universe tore an infinite wound in space and time and flooded the heart of a child with grace upon grace. I don’t know if that second miracle actually happened, but I think it did, and it is in any case the best explanation for the first miracle of Kezek staying still for ten seconds. And in a certain sense, it is the only thing I really know that happened last night. And it was a miracle.


If there is a single statement I am willing to die for in this world, it is the statement Jesus makes about children and about his kingdom. It is a statement that must be taken in its plainest sense, I mean plain like the periodic table, plain like the tables of the Law. It is elemental and concrete, smaller than any doctrinal statement and yet every doctrinal statement must bend itself around its basic claim. It is found in Luke 18, Matthew 18, Mark 10, and the entire Gospel of John. In Luke it reads like this: Jesus’ disciples have clocked out but people keep showing up at the office, mothers and kids and all that racket. So the disciples start rebuking them, despite the fact that Jesus had already told them they’d be better off having a millstone tied around their necks and cast into the sea than getting in the way of children coming to him (Lk. 17:2; Mt. 18:6)

[Side note: I once heard a Calvinist argue that some babies must be predestined to hell because otherwise Christians shouldn’t be against abortion since if all babies go to heaven Christians should therefore endorse abortion. For the record, babies do not go to hell and Christ still condemns abortion, and probably that Calvinist too.]

So Jesus says to them, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:15-17). If you want to spend the rest of your life trying to wrap your mind around God, that is a good place to begin, also to end. 

The reason last night will exist in my memory as one of the most important moments in my life is because last night I learned that leading children into the kingdom of God is the way God uses children to lead adults into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Last night I grew up and became a priest. But then I learned how to become a child by watching my child enter the kingdom and remembering what it was like to receive the kingdom as though I were entitled to it, by grabbing it as though it were already mine. Last night I remembered that in Christ the whole kingdom is already mine, because it is always already His.

I remembered that God comes to us only as grace, and that children do not complain that God comes to us only as grace. Children do not deny their need for grace, only adults. No child has ever argued against original sin, but a lot of adults have. Because being an adult means defending yourself. Adults can become so powerful in their defense that they manage to hold at bay the entire kingdom of God. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t keep the gates of my heart locked. It doesn’t mean that I cannot become the gates of hell and reject the gates of pearl. It does not mean I cannot grow old.

I was reminded last night that to enter the kingdom of God I had to open myself up with something like the unquestioning vulnerability of a defenseless child, or that of a crucified God. I had to become open to grace like I needed it. Jesus opened himself up to nails like he needed them. Opening up to grace feels scary like opening up to nails before you do it, but then somehow refreshing like a shower after, like Jesus on his walk up Golgotha but then like the soldier on the way back down.


One time as a child I broke my toe while trespassing with my godless brother and sister and cousins (I was the youngest and most innocent) in a foam factory that may as well have been Disney World. We lied and said I broke it on a brick pile. After it swelled up like a light bulb my dad came at me with the leather punch out on a Swiss Army knife, like a soldier with a sword but more like a father whose heart hurt like my toe, but worse. As he twisted metal into my flesh out came the crimson flow and with it like a Siamese twin my confession. I confessed that we were all liars and nothing in my life has ever felt as good as that knife and that confession. Nothing has ever felt more like grace either. It was amazing relief in the form of blood spattering all over the place. And it came only when the one I trusted most stabbed me in the place that hurt the worst. I had to open myself up like a vulnerable child, or a crucified God, because I had lied and closed myself up like an old man.

Kezek helped me open up again last night. And I can say that this is one of the few times I did not complain about my need to open up, to be wounded, and to be healed. When my time came to take the Elements, I confessed to God that I am a liar and it felt so relieving and so bloody to do so.

I also remembered last night that there are a lot of things I ask of Jesus, and that Jesus is always giving me more than I ask for, even though sometimes it feels like he’s not giving me exactly what I ask for. I remembered that I need a community of people to lead me to him and to lead my children to him, not because Jesus needs a community to accomplish his work, rather because Jesus’ work accomplishes community, because it is the work of receiving people, which is the hardest work of all. I remembered last night that God’s House is the community of Jesus (Eph. 2; 4; 1 Cor. 6; 1 Pet. 2).

Lastly, I remembered that in God’s house there is only one Rule: Receive the Gift of your life by receiving Jesus’ death: “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” (Jn. 6), and this do as though you are entitled to do it and as though your life depends on it, because you are and it does.

The Table is open. Come to Jesus.

“This do in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19).

 

 

Advent Reflection 16: Wonder

 Illumination ©Beth Cole | Oil on Canvas | 9 x 12

~ Beth Cole, “Illumination”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

How else can those undeniable experiences of God be described? I have asked and continue to ask innumerable questions about God’s existence, but I have never walked away from an encounter with God with more “answers.” That’s just the wrong category. I get answers from the Bible, but I do not get answers from God himself. I have never walked away from an encounter with God answering everything but rather pondering everything. I’m not firmed up in rigid certainty. I’m opened up in wonder

Having said that, I have attempted to describe what that opening up and that pondering is like. Below is a journal entry that has many dates attached to it, both because of the many times I’ve come back and tried to do a better job of capturing my experience in words, only to be left evermore certain that such experiences simply cannot be so captured any more than a voice can be captured in a photograph or lightening in human hands, but also because in principle it could be attached to any time, any date, I have been encountered by God. Every such encounter takes me back to the first, where I am again a little boy, small, and God is again God—those times I again discover that God is God and I am not. As such, you will have to pardon the apocalyptic tenor of my descriptions, but you’d be better off embracing them.  


Originally Titled: A Longing with A Name

It was on my way from the chapel back to the cabins, a short walk through the woods at Quaker Haven Camp in Northern Indiana. I was eight years old. We had just been released–finally!–from the obligatory chapel session where things were obligatorily said like, “Jesus died for your sins.” The camp director gave us an extra hour of free time until lights-out since it was the last night. Unassuming, I began to hurry back to the cabin to get my flashlight and burglar attire to play capture the flag. Then—I froze.  

I was stuck staring at something invisible and everywhere, at nothing and everything. It was kind of like the Holy Spirit people at church always talked about, but perhaps more like the Holy Spirit. There were trees. There was transcendence. The earth had lost its horizons. My vision stretched the present into forever and rebounded back. And I saw everything again, as if for the first time. I’m almost tempted to describe it as an “out-of-body experience,” but it was more like the exact opposite. It’s not that I was seeing myself from without so much as I, indeed everything, was being seen, known (something like 1 Corinthians 13:12). But even that doesn’t do it justice, because it wasn’t like discovering the presence of someone who was spying on me from behind the trees. It was more like discovering the presence of Presence itself.

I was enveloped, but not I alone. The whole cosmos had been tucked away like a bird hidden in an old man’s inner breast-pocket. It was, in a moment, a rush of Wonder and, in the next, the strike of Revelation. And in an experience of unsolicited arrival, I found myself at the crossroads of a longing I didn’t know I had and a joy I didn’t know I could have, a place I wanted to call home–in the way Peter on the mountain wanted to build three tents. And I may as well have been dead, or I may as well have just been born. I felt like a shadow that had suddenly turned around and discovered just how sad and flat was the world I had been living in all along.

I had just stumbled into the living God. It wasn’t an emotion. I did not feel a sensation or get cold chills and my heart wasn’t “strangely warmed.” I knew it in the way you can only know guilt or motive or trust or hope. It is not something you can prove but something that somehow proves you. The thing I distinctly remember thinking over and over was, “God is here.” I don’t mean “thinking” like most thoughts, airy and speculative. I mean the way you might find yourself, dumbstruck, thinking, “A Lion is here,” were you to stumble on one in the woods. And I don’t mean “here” as in “around here” or “here in my heart.” Just “here,” where I was, where the universe was. Also, I don’t mean “God” in any unspecified sense. It was the One they’d named in chapel. It was Jesus, but not exactly the Jesus I’d always known. Jesus had always been floating around in my childhood mind, but so had Ronald McDonald. But in that moment, Ronald remained as statuesque as a Greek god but Jesus had just descended like lightening. So in a rush of greed, like a moth, I extended myself to take hold of him, and then—gone.

It had lasted for maybe ten seconds, maybe for all eternity. I couldn’t tell. And I wasn’t even sure it had happened, or I wasn’t even sure that anything else had ever happened. It only now existed as a longing that felt like a bashfully hopeful heartache. I remember trying to adjust my body, refocus my eyes, send my thoughts back to where they just were, run back in time, stop time, start my whole life over so I could run into this Moment again. But I could do nothing of the sort. It was the start-and-stop of wonder in capturing the invisible now, like the moment my kids finally seize a bubble floating about in thin air—the moment they capture it is the very moment it escapes. So that eternal Moment was gone but I was still there—just me and time and the knowledge of an untamable God that cannot be caged.

When I convinced myself to let go and continue up the ordinary hill into a now very unordinary world, I felt as if I had stolen something and everyone, indeed everything, became terribly suspicious. The universe had become one giant, illusive conspiracy. It was one big house of mirrors and I had just glimpsed through the only window in the house as the curtain was being drawn. I felt as if everyone either had this shared secret they’d been keeping from me or I had a secret that no one else knew about. But I didn’t know which it was. So I never told anyone. What was there to tell anyway? And who would have believed me? It was a pearl and the disbelieving world was swine.

But I treasured it in my heart. I treasured it like a thief treasures a diamond in his pocket, too afraid of being found out to ever cash it in for something else, but never really wanting to anyway. I only wanted more diamonds. I only wanted to discover it again, to try to capture it again, not yet understanding that I would have to be captured by It to remain with It at all.

Born in me that day was a deep awareness that something had been found and something had been lost. It was beautiful. It was tragic. It was and would forever hence remain the only longing my soul ever knew, like the pure and faithful longing of my lungs, or the singular longing of loneliness. My only consolation—and perhaps this was just the point—was in this: from that point forward, my Longing had a Name.