Christmastide (Final) Reflection: Second-born


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


Originally Titled Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior

The baby was born. They called him James.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

There are no words here that will do.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

~ Psalm 36:7

Christmas Reflection ~

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mk. 1:1-15). 

Mark get straight to the point. There are no mangers or magi, no sheep or stars, no angels in the sky or shepherds in the field. A Man appears with a message, with News: Times up! The King is come! 

Good News, indeed. 

And the response? Repent. To repent means to change your mind. If the King is come, change your mind about your unwarranted fears, about your uncertain future. If the King is come, change your mind about your hopelessness, your joylessness, your unrest. If the King is come, change your mind about yourself, your neighbors, this world, and your God—because you and they and this world are loved.

So beloved of God, repent, for Christmas is at hand!

“The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the surrender. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Gospel of God’s Kingdom tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Gospel message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a person who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor.” 

~ Karl Barth

Merry Christmas!

Advent Reflection 24: Life & Death at the Feet of the Master

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Mt. 2:16).

We simply cannot wish it away. The Christmas story comes to us in a world of unbelievable evil, sin, and death, even infanticide. A Baby is born and laid in a manger, countless others murdered and laid in graves, and all under the dominion of “king Herod.” The true Christmas story is about the world’s true King coming to restore his dominion in a world under the dominion of death—human dominion. Below is a reflection about the day I became more convinced than ever about the futility, the destructiveness, of my own dominion, one of the days I began to truly long for Christ to come back and restore his dominion

May God teach us how to long for his Tomorrow.


ringo.jpg

Originally Titled 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 dead 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 was the worst of all the world in that moment, the chief among murderers. I felt it would take no less than hellfire to burn the stain off my hands, or perhaps burn my hands off the stain.  

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 that 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 flightless halo of braided 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.

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Advent Reflection 23: Homeless

Another special guest post from my sister, ChristiAnna Coats. For more of her writings, you can buy her first book on Amazon (also a great stocking stuffer!): click here for link. 

“And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Mt. 2:14-15). 

I had lied to my mother. I had lied to her about where I was going, who was with me, and what I would be doing. Those were the three questions she always asked and I had lied about each one in order to go on a double date…fully two years before I was permitted to do so.

And I regretted it immediately.

I thought it would be dinner and a movie. Like an episode of Saved by the Bell, where we ended the evening laughing at the diner drinking milkshakes. I was fourteen.

We had ended up at someone’s home. No. Someone’s house. But did anyone really live here? I couldn’t figure out what they were doing with the spoon over the fire. I remember feeling invisible. No one seemed to notice me and I tried not to look directly at any of them. Being invisible was the only solace I had. Should anyone have spoken to me, or attempted to engage me in whatever it was they were doing, I fully expected to become a puddle in the floor. It was the Saturday night before Easter.

I wanted to go home. I was 14, but I may as well have been 5. I longed for the scent of my mother, the creak in our wooden floor, and blankets that would envelope my shame. I imagined that she would be preparing our baskets and the morning would come and it would be the most glorious feeling in the whole world. I couldn’t wait. I looked around the room and knew that no one else there had a mother like mine. I was so close to home, but had never felt so far away. My gut had such a wrenching ache.

This was my first true experience of longing for home.

My second longing, however, is much different from the first. The second longing comes with an assurance that the first longing only dreamt of. There is no longer a hollow ache in my gut. My second longing is accompanied with hope. The second longing is accompanied with peace. The second longing is able to experience the kingdom already but not yet the kingdom to its fullest. The kingdom to its fullest is still yet to come. Until then, we sojourn on. Until then we are all foreigners here, strangers in a strange land. Even when the babies are tucked in tight, and there are soft carols playing, and the glow of the twinkling lights provide the only evening light we need, and I am in my home…I’m not home. Permanence here is illusive. Because for every child nestled all snug in his bed, there is a restless one with no earthly ear to hear his cry.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

I’m not home until there are no more homeless refugees, trying to makes sense of their plight. I’m not home until there is nary a need for a gun, nor a fence, nor a password, nor a calendar, nor antidepressants. I’m not home until the fatherless get evening bear hugs with real touchable beards. I’m not home until babies sleep from a full belly, rather than hungered exhaustion. I’m not home until there are no more orphans smoking in crack houses on the Saturday night before Easter. I’m not home until there is no more night. In his book, Longing for Home, Frederick Buechner writes, “be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

But there will come a Day!

Until that Day, we wait. We wait as Israel waited. And we wait with the promise that “The Lord watches over sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless…”. Until that Day, we wait not as we wait in line at WalMart, passively biding the moments until we can get on with our day. We wait as we wait for Christmas. We wait in constant preparation and proclamation. We wait, all the while proclaiming to the orphan that she has a Father! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the addict that the void can be filled – filled to overflowing! We wait, all the while proclaiming to the hungry, and the weary, and the worn – hope! And we proclaim to the refugees – all of us longing for a home – there is a home with table prepared, and where everyone has a Father.

And the Father is always, always home (John 14:2-3).

Advent Reflection 22: Violence

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

All was not calm, all was not bright for Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. Christ came into a world that was turned in on itself. The people of God were divided, their hopes were divided, their allegiances were divided. Alliances were formed as much around what people were against as what they were for. It was a world of violence, a world all too familiar to our own. One thing virtually everyone could agree on, however, is that they were not interested in crowning a “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). The Son of God came into the world to bring peace and from day one the world sought to destroy Him. Everybody hates a peacemaker. May the Church of Jesus Christ be willing to be hated by all.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Mt. 5:9). 


american-civil-war-abstract-expressionism-zeana-romanovna

~ American Civil War by Georgiana Romanovna

This article was originally published at Asbury Theological Seminary’s Seedbed website during the height of conflicts that precipitated from the Ferguson ‘incident’. Below is a revised and slightly expanded version that better qualifies the most salient points. 


Originally Titled: A Confession of Violence

As a person who regularly tries to encourage fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to try to spend more time concerning themselves with the Good News of Jesus (that produces hope) than the nothing-new-under-the-sun headline news (that produces fear), I think it is necessary at this time to acknowledge a certain need for followers of Christ to speak out publicly—with a distinctly Christian voice—in light of the recent tragedies and the increasing angst in our nation’s cultural climate. There is only one such voice: 

For that reason, I have a confession I need to make. It is a confession of violence.


I was reminded this week of what Karl Barth once wrote in his journal at a significant turning point in his life and thought during the First World War:

“It is not the war that disturbs our peace. The war is not even the cause of our unrest. It has merely brought to light the fact that our lives are all based on unrest. And where there is unrest there can be no peace” (Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, Eberhard Busch). 

As fingers continue to point, defenses continue to rise, and the wilderness is increasingly populated with a rapid influx of expatriated goats (Lev. 16), I hesitate to say what I feel I must say, because I am quite possibly wrong. But with that disclaimer: I want to suggest that there is a very real possibility that the recent tragedies in this nation were not simply caused by a few bad apples in an otherwise innocent bunch. I have to consider at least the possibility that somehow the increased supply of violence in our culture is suited precisely to meet the increase of a cultural demand, of which we are all complicit.

Consider for example the current political circus. There have been no shortage of aggravated complaints and expressions of puzzlement over how, of all the people our nation could have produced, we ended up with Cruella Deville and Leopold II as the two representatives of our nation’s principle values and common visions. And yet, I can’t help but think we are just willfully ignoring the obvious and only explanation; namely, the reason we ended up with the current representatives of this nation is that they are most representative of this nation.

This is not simply a principle of democracy. It is a principle of the more decisive governing factor in our consumerist culture, the principle of supply and demand. We have been feeding on this extended campaign season with an irrepressible appetite. Media networks, profiting outrageously from our patronage, have risen to meet our demand, and we in turn rise to feed on the surplus (a few tweeting feuds, some scandals, and a delicious array of ad hominem attacks). All the while the people blame the networks for the results, while the networks blame the other networks, while the other networks blame the people. Everybody is taking from everybody and then turning on everybody. It’s like a group of smeared-mouth toddlers blaming each other for cookies missing from the pan, but actually it’s a lot more like a twisted praying mantis love triangle.

But all this misses the point, because it is not the candidates we support that have produced this conflict; it is the conflict we support that has produced these candidates. And indeed they were perfect candidates for the task.

I think I can say unequivocally, if only because it can be neither proved nor denied, that what has most resonated with this nation in this campaign is its unprecedented rhetoric of violence. A civil war of clumsy words and gasoline passions is raging throughout our nation. We’re not looking for representatives of social values–we’re looking for spokesmen of social angst. Thus, rather than candidates engaging in principled arguments with regular appeals to the constitution, candidates must engage in a hyper-reactive surface battle of uncritical sentiments and prove most capable of weaponizing trivia and amplifying slander. Who will prove to be the biggest bullhorn for the mob? Who will prove to have the loudest arguments? Who will lead half of this country in a campaign of disgust against the other half of this country?

The nominees may not represent much of what we stand for, but they represent quite exactly what we stand against, which is why we ended up with the two candidates who are supremely competent at attacking the incompetence of the other. It has become far easier in our nation to rally people around whom they hate than what they love. The appeal that resonates with this country’s soul is a an appeal to our restlessness, for which we are miserably fearful or passionately infuriated (a rather pedantic distinction), the only cure of which is blame or blood or some other sacrificial motif. But since we have long rejected “religious” categories to explain “secular” realities, we have nothing to sacrifice but one another. But far be it from me to suggest a source of our violence so outrageous as an existential need for atonement. Suffice it just to say it seems quite evident that we are a nation increasingly naked and commensurately ashamed. 

Indeed, “the [violence] is not even the cause of our unrest. It has merely brought to light the fact that our lives are all based on unrest.”


But perhaps I should be more transparent. The truth is I was confronted by my own complicity with this restless violence this week in a way I wish I could have kept hidden from myself.

If I am uncomfortably honest, I must confess that I have grown completely numb to the pain of the wider world. I don’t think I qualify as a sociopath or anything, but neither will I suggest that I am an accurate representative of the human heart. I know my capacity for pride and self-indulgence, and I should only hope that by and large human nature is at least better than my nature. All that to say, when I read or hear about a person being shot or multiple people being shot or riots breaking out because of all the people being shot, I am sorry to say that that it in no way affects me, at least not in a way that elicits compassion. If I feel anything it is invariably a kind of distracted, yawning anger, which isn’t really concerned with human beings and in fact is quite amused with blood. But most of the time I just don’t care.

I don’t know if I have always been particularly numb to distant tragedies or if I am just particularly sensitive to local misfortunes that hardly rank anywhere near the level of “tragedy,” but the truth is I am more likely to weep with my son weeping while getting shots at the doctor than I am to weep over strangers getting shot at a distance. And I know this to be the case, because I did weep–just a few tears–a few weeks ago when my son got five immunization shots in a single visit, and I did not weep upon hearing about the five police officers killed in a single shooting–not a single tear.

Until this past week. This past week I was confronted with an unlikely encounter with compassion. While watching a newly widowed woman give a public statement regarding the injustice of her husband’s death, suddenly the camera panned over to a young boy (15) covering his face with his shirt. It appeared he was trying to restrain himself at first, but his efforts soon proved futile. He began to weep, loudly. Recognizing the moment’s need, supporters began gently escorting him off stage, at which point his tears found their deepest and purest interpretation in a simple and repeated lament: “I want my daddy! I want my daddy! I want my daddy!”

I think this was the first time I have ever felt real compassion for someone so removed from my everyday life. I am certain it is the first time I have ever wept with such a person so removed from my everyday life. But in that moment it wasn’t about what the cops had done or what the man had not done, or vice versa on either side. It was about the longing of a lost boy’s heart for the presence of a father who is forever gone. That felt too close to home in too many ways for me. And perhaps for a moment I became a little more human and discovered the possibility of a far-reaching compassion.

But my empathy was short-lived, rather short-fused. In a matter of seconds I was moved from a blooming compassion to disturbed desire. I found myself looking up information about the police officers. I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t looking for anything about a “fair trial” or “due process” or “the other side of the story…” I was looking for blood. It was irrational. It was I imagine the way I would act if something were to happen to one of my own children or tribe. At first, I just wanted that little boy to have his father back, but I got over it. Rather than wallowing in that boy’s hopeless pain, perhaps in truth just to alleviate my pain, or perhaps more likely to satisfy my wrath, I grew up. I gave up on the childish hope of redemption, and frankly I wasn’t satisfied with even the rational desire for justice. I wanted revenge.

At some point after scrolling through headline after headline in a trance I snapped out of it. And in a moment I was confronted by my own hypocrisy, my immense capacity not only for violence but for a kind of self-righteous violence, if not a kind of self-congratulatory violence. And as such, I was confronted with the fact that even (or especially) my life is based on unrest, that I have no raw materials within me for peace, because what is in me is death and death must come out in blood (Heb. 9).

But rather than arbitrarily seeking it from a few cops I don’t know from Adam–or perhaps I know them precisely from Adam–I looked up to the print of Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece hanged above my desk, and I acknowledged where I must go for blood if I am ever going to find peace. For there is a Victim whose blood cries out from the ground with a word of Life louder than the word of Abel (Heb. 12:24; Gen. 4:10). But to go to him for blood, I must not attempt to take his side: I must go as the soldier with hammer in hand, for I am the reason for all this bloodshed, I have preferred Pilate’s basin to Jesus’, I am the executor of my own standard of justice, I am the restless criminal, I am the self-righteous murderer, I am the greedy thief, I am the hair-triggered abuse of power, I am the taunting spectator standing safely at a distance with no compassion for the pain of this Man and no tears for the sorrow his mother, for I have refused to be my brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:9) and instead have become his accuser (Rev. 12:10). I am the over-exacting vengeance I too often refuse to hand over to the Lord who demands that I do (Rom. 12).

So I surrendered: I handed over every last drop of my vengeance to him by way of an iron stake.

And I wept again. I wept for myself, for that boy, for my boys and my family, for that boy’s family, for that widow, for all those police officers and all their families and those widows, for all the restless souls caught up the violent whirlwind of our fire-breathing nation.

But I did not weep for Jesus. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t feel worthy or maybe because he seemed too distant and strange. But maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe it was the first time I was able to weep with real compassion, the kind that refuses to give way to violence, because maybe it was the first time Jesus was able to weep through me.

Lord, have mercy.

 

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.

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…