Make Way

A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!”

Isaiah 40:3
Painting by Marilyn Froggatt

(This post is adapted from a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent. It is based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8. All scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, 2011.)

There are plenty of voices crying out in our world today. These voices are crying: Lord, help me. I lost my job and I can’t afford rent! Close the restaurants! Open the restaurants! Wear a mask! Wearing a mask infringes on my personal rights! The election was rigged! These votes are fraudulent! The results are clear. Let’s move forward! We need a vaccine! Vaccines are harmful to my children! My business is suffering! I’m tired of staying home! I’m afraid to go out!

Right now, the cries in our culture are cacophonous. The world’s woes are so loud, they may seem deafening. You even may feel the need to tune out the cries as a way to protect your souls. You may have stopped watching the news because it is frustrating or depressing. You may have stopped reading the papers too.

While those are not harmful practices — and may even be considered good self-care in the middle of a pandemic — listening to all these cries is an opportunity too. If you can keep your emotions from becoming entangled as you listen to all the noise, you can hear the heart of the world. You can feel its pulse. No matter your political allegiances, your personal opinions and practices, it’s true that all these cries expose a large amount of angst and anxiety, weariness and vulnerability.

People are tired of being flexible and having to change their patterns of daily living to accommodate an unwanted virus. We want to be finished with the feeling that our foundations — our economy, our democracy, our toilet paper — are unsure. Even though we may be somewhat used to the disruptions 2020 has brought us, we don’t like them. We chafe against them. We want the freedom and carefree living back that we used to know. We want an end to this mess. We want a smooth and clear path forward.

So now I have to say — what a special connection we have to the ancient Israelites! They cried out when they were conquered by foreigners and exiled into strange lands and cultures. Everything was unstable and foreign to them for a long time. 

And what angsty waiting we now share in common with first century Jews! They were desperate to have their Messiah come and overthrow the corruptions they saw destroying their people and their beloved Promised Land — corruptions done by Roman rule, crooked tax collectors, and even their own religious leaders. Everything likely felt unstable and uncertain and frustrating to common first century Jews. 

When I listen and reflect, it seems to me that the 2020 world has uniquely prepared our hearts to hear the opening words from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people!” These were not written for us, but how fitting for our circumstances and our hearts!

We want our world righted, don’t we? We want our lives back. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a prophet come across your TV screen and speak compassionately, saying, “I hear your voices crying out. God hears you. So make way for God! He’s coming to rescue you in your desperation!”

Like our Israelite ancestors, we want a clear and safe path forward. Our hoped-for path is a safe one through the pandemic and other disturbing events in our day. But we know that there are things that only God can right. And we know from the pages of the Bible, that relief and rescue are not always immediate, nor will they be on our desired timeline. 

In calm and reflective moments, we know that there is much we could learn in the angsty waiting of 2020, don’t we? We know there are even things to be gained as we wade through the messiness of the pandemic, the faltering economy, and civil unrest. In this chaos, haven’t we realized how precious it is to spend time with our loved ones? Haven’t we reevaluated and boosted the value of a handshake or a hug in greeting? 

As much as I would love for there to be a modern-day prophet like Isaiah to come bring us words of comfort from God, we have a greater need than to receive comfort. In these days, we people of God have a call to be the prophets in our world. As much as the world of 2020 may feel like a kind of exile, or oppression, or an unstable mass of negativity, we are not the victims. 

Hear me say this. Chew on this truth today, as difficult as it may be to believe… You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets. You are not in exile. You are in advent. 

We are God’s people on earth, and in times of fear, instability, uncertainty, and even plague, we can be prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. We can be the faithful followers of God who stand up to a culture and to people overwhelmed by fearful circumstances. To them we can speak words of peace. 

We can be the prophets who remind those around us that the world is yes, certainly wrestling against evils right now, but also that something greater is coming. We can remind them that we have the God of angel armies on our side; and no evil forces can stand against him. 

We are the prophets who remind people that the God who created the heavens and the earth can make these towering, treacherous mountains before us fall flat — these mountains called Covid, and Economic Collapse, and Shortage of Medical Staff. God can smooth them by his powerful hand and make a clear path ahead. 

We are the prophets of the desert wandering period we call 2020. We are the ones who can remind our fellow humans that even if this season of unrest lasts 40 years, we will never be abandoned by the God who loves us. Because ours is the God who lights up the darkness. Who leads people through deserts. Who frees the enslaved. Who rescues the exiled. And who leads them to a place of abundance. 

You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets. 
You are not in exile. You are in advent. 

We are advent people. Our main work in Advent is to wait well. But don’t just sit there waiting. Waiting is not passive. Become an advent prophet. Through scripture we see advent prophets making way for the coming of Jesus. The two tasks of waiting well and making way are intertwined. We wait for the culmination of God’s interventions in the brokenness around us…until the pandemic is over and there is more peace in our world and our hearts. And while we wait, we make way for Jesus.

We wait well and make way by emulating Moses, and Isaiah, and John the baptist. They all lived in difficult and unsettled times. They didn’t rail against their circumstances like helpless victims. They didn’t shrivel up and succumb to fear. Instead, they spoke to the broken world around them. They told the truth of God’s character and actions to others. They announced that God was coming to right all the wrong around them. 

We can do this too. We can make way for the coming of the goodness of Jesus in 2020, just like Moses and Isaiah and John did in their time. To be a successful advent prophet is to be a calm, and faithful messenger of the arrival of Jesus. 

I see at least four habits of advent prophets in scripture. First, advent prophets keep calm when the world around them is not. Moses went up against the most powerful man in his world. We remember that Moses felt insecure to act as God’s spokesman — something about a stutter or a fear of public speaking — but he did what God asked. Moses witnessed the plagues God used to release the Hebrews from Pharoah’s grip. Moses led the Hebrews on the 40-year winding trek through the desert. In all the uncertainty he stayed the course. He served God faithfully. He spoke for God, even when the people were angry, afraid, or discontent. 

Second, advent prophets trust in things they cannot see. Isaiah is a great example of this. Isaiah himself never saw the Israelites freed from exile. He never saw them return to the Promised Land. He never met Jesus. But he spoke out tirelessly about God’s coming rescue. He foretold the coming of a king in the line of David who would bring peace to the world. You’ll remember his famous prophecies, “A shoot from the stump of Jesse” and “For unto us a child is born…and the government will be on his shoulders…a Prince of Peace.” Isaiah never lived to see these things happen, but he believed they would because God told him so. Isaiah shared these extraordinary hopes with the people around him. 

Third, advent prophets speak up. Often they had to raise their voices to be heard amid the noise of the world around them. This is what Isaiah said:

Go up on a high mountain,
messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” 

Isaiah 40:9

Mark 1:4 says that the prophet John (the Baptist) was in the wilderness “calling for people.” 

To be an advent prophet for Jesus is to speak up. No good advent prophet keeps silent. Silence is antithetical to being a messenger. Think of the angels. When they show up in Bible stories, they speak. They announce. They are heralds of the good news of God. Prophets are the same. They speak up and speak out. And their message is our fourth point. For advent prophets, their message always points to God.

Moses never used his speech to focus on himself and announce his own importance. Moses announced the coming of God’s plagues to Pharaoh. Once the Hewbrews were free, he announced God’s law to them. When they misbehaved in the desert season, he announced God’s judgement and mercy.

Isaiah was also outspoken. His message gave hope to a weary and frightened people. 

The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” (40:5)

“Here is your God!
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength,
with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him
and his payment before him.” (40:9b-10)

As a prophet, Isaiah faced a lot of opposition from disbelieving Jews and misbehaving Israelite kings. But he stayed focused on pointing people toward righteousness and hope in their just God.

John the Baptist was a humble, unconventional guy. He lived in the desert. He had few resources. His clothes were rustic. He ate locusts and wild honey. He had gained notoriety and people traveled to hear him because they were curious about his message, but John didn’t bask in his growing popularity. When people came to him, even when they greatly admired him, he pointed them on toward Jesus. In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.”

The advent prophets of scripture were focused not on the chaos around them, nor on their own presitigue. They were singularly focused on announcing the coming of God’s goodness. We can follow in their footsteps. Remember, no matter what you are feeling inside, no matter what the chaos and uncertainty of the world predicts, there is bedrock truth that overcomes all of it…

Jesus is the good news of God that breaks into the noise of the world. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the one who can release people from their fear of Covid. Their worries of financial crisis. Their pessimistic doubts about the future. 

Jesus is coming to the broken world and the broken people of 2020. He will restore us and our world as God has done in every difficult season throughout human history. Even though we can’t see it, even if we have trouble believing it, God is on the move around our globe. God is calming fears, inspiring scientists toward a vaccine, propping up weary health care workers, and helping people come up with creative and innovative ways to do business and school and family gatherings that mitigate the risks of passing the virus. 

We are adapting and surviving and learning how to live (and maybe even thrive) while times are hard. God is producing all this in us. Remember, we are not in exile. We are in advent. And as we wait and endure, we are not victims. We are prophets. 

So today my task as an advent prophet is to say — You are doing well. You are doing a good job riding the waves of the tumultuous tide of 2020. You may feel like you are failing, but that’s just because you are evaluating yourself with the same scale you used before the pandemic…and the election season…and the racial unrest and the looting…and the recession. You are not failing when you feel discouraged. You are enduring. Though it doesn’t feel good, you are waiting well. 

Struggling and feeling discouraged are good signs, really. Feelings like these show that your spirit has some fight left. It means your heart and soul know that there is more to life than all this struggle. You are battling back against the messages that say that the future is gloom and doom. Your heart is crying out for something more, something better, something whole and abundant. And my job today is to remind you that something is coming. 

Our Jesus is coming. Our rescuing God is on the move to restore our world and our hearts. We don’t know what that will look like and how soon it will happen, but take heart: It. Will. Happen. 

We are advent prophets, and we trust in things we cannot see. We rely on and hope in a God who has proven himself faithful to generation upon generation. He will not fail us.

So friends, it’s time to get up. It’s time to take up your call to be advent prophets. It’s time to speak up and speak out about the truths you know from God’s word. It’s time to comfort our discouraged and fearful neighbors with words of assurance. It’s time to get up and live in a way that says, “Here is your God! Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm to bring restoration and peace to our bleak world.” 

Raise your voice against the noise of the world. Raise it and speak words of hope to those who are lost. And while you do, hold on to this truth:

The grass dries up;
the flower withers,
but our God’s word will exist forever. 

Isaiah 40:8

12 Ways to Bless your Pastor in December

December is to pastors what April is to CPAs.

This month begins the triple crown of holy celebrations: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas is our Kentucky Derby, but without the garish hats.

It takes weeks months to plan and prepare – not just events but hearts – to receive the spiritual feast that is Christmas. This work gets piled atop our regular work. Pastoral care and counseling skyrocket as the holidays trigger grief, pain, loneliness, and disappointment for so many. And like you, pastors navigate the extra expectations that come to family life this month.

Prepare-Him-Room-close

Chances are that your pastor’s inner life is a mess of scattered thoughts and mixed feelings right now. She or he is pushing (or crawling) toward December 25th fueled by stubbornness, waning hope, and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many pastors are too busy or drained to partake in the spiritual feast of Christmas themselves.

If you want help your pastor thrive this month, here are some practical ways you can dole out blessing.

  1. Send a festive card, but do more than sign your name next to the printed text. Tell them three things you’ve noticed them do in service to the church and why it matters.
  2. Better yet, whether by card or in person, affirm something of your pastor’s character or spirit. This will help them know you value them for who they are, not just for the role they play at church.
  3. By all means, invite the pastor to your Christmas party every year, but please do not be offended if they decline. Realize that their absence might be an important chance to rest, reflect, and spend time with their family or alone with God.
  4. There’s a time and place for constructive feedback. 5 minutes after the Christmas concert/play/service is not one of them. (That’s kind of like going up to a bride and groom during their wedding reception and telling them it was a lovely ceremony, but her dress is not to your taste.) Wait a week or two if you must pass on your critique.
  5. Better yet, volunteer your thoughts or time in the weeks or months prior to these extra events. If you have a great idea or a concern, take it to your pastor when they are rested and free to share their time with you. They’ll likely listen better and have time to consider/incorporate your ideas.
  6. If you want to offer positive feedback or affirmation about an event, sermon or service, try giving more than a “thanks” or “good job.” A pastor’s dearest hope is that their work is more than a pleasant experience; they hope it nurtures your soul. Please thank your pastor, but try something like this: “That was a great service because the silence allowed me time to hear God’s voice,” or “the music and scripture readings encouraged me to be more hopeful when life seems dark.” (If you’re not good with words, pretend my examples are Mad Libs and fill in the blanks with your own thoughts.) Trust me, specific feedback is more gratifying in the present, and very helpful when planning for the future.
  7. With a congested December calendar, things like grocery shopping or getting to the post office tumble down the priority list. If you are one of those rare people with spare time this season, how about dropping off a simple meal (thanks for the split-pea soup Sarah!) or offering to run some simple errands?
  8. Encourage your pastor to rest. Sabbath is never more important than when our hearts and energy are in higher demand. If your pastor is regularly open to your feedback and accountability, then they’ll certainly need it this month. Feel free to cut through their excuses (i.e. “I don’t have time to rest”) with a gentle but firm reminder that rest is essential to doing their work well, and to their souls!
  9. It’s super nice of you to gift your pastor some Christmas cookies or peanut brittle, but the sugar highs and crashes will make these long days even more challenging. Tired people need nutrients. How about trading high-carb gifts for fresh or dried fruit, nuts, or even a gift card to the local grocer? If your cookies are truly a prized gift, how about 1 or 2 sweets nicely wrapped instead of an entire dozen?
  10. Help clean up. This one might sound silly, but I can’t tell you many times I’ve planned an event and forgot to ask volunteers to stay to the end and help me stack chairs, wipe tables, take out the trash, etc. Not every church has staff to do this, so your pastor might be working for hours after everyone else goes home. Many hands make light work!
  11. Friends, your needs and concerns are legitimate and important, but in your pastor’s busiest season, it’s caring and wise to ask yourself whether your issue is time-sensitive or emergent. If it’s neither, consider blessing your pastor by postponing your meeting until the new year. That way he or she gets some restorative downtime at the end of a very full month.
  12. Gift your pastor time away. Being a pastor is unlike most jobs today; It’s not 9-5, Monday through Friday. Pastors work odd days and hours to accommodate their congregants’ schedules. They respond whenever there’s a crisis, no matter the day or holiday. And many pastors make a modest income, which limits their ability to travel or retreat. Your church may not have the means to give your pastor a raise, but can you afford to beef up their vacation package? Or maybe you have airmiles, a country cottage, or a guest pass to an amusement park? Gifts of time and experiences in a different setting will be sweet refreshment after a busy season.

I’ve suggested 12 ways to bless your pastor this month, but I’m sure there are many more. Have fun exploring ways to bless!

P.S. – This post is not a hint to any of my congregants. I am well cared for and thank you for your wonderful, consistent support. 

The Prince and the People of Peace

The Creator of the universe entered the human story like sunlight piercing a deep cave. Jesus’ birth brought hope to a dim and decaying world. He would grow with a wisdom able to satisfy thirsty souls. His compassion for sinners, and wanderers, and the poor in spirit would be contagious, and become an unstoppable force of peace that we call the church.

A Different Kind of King

— An advent reading by Corrie Gustafson

Emmanuel means God with us. The Bible tells us that, “this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him.”

Do you believe this story we’re sharing? This true story about a loving God who sent his son to earth?

Jesus entered our world humbly,
as a baby,
but grew to be king.

Jesus never sat on a gilded throne in a lavish throne room.
His first throne room was a stable;
His first throne, a manger full of hay.
Now heaven is his throne,
and earth his footstool.

Jesus never sought a palace or storehouses filled with gold.
He walked the dusty roads of his country
meeting the poor in spirit,
eating with outcasts,
touching the diseased,
healing the sick.

Jesus never ruled by intimidation, or control, or arrogance.
His power was in his love.
His authority was to forgive sin.
His desire was to rule over human hearts.

Jesus never led an army of charioteers to crush kingdoms and build an earthly empire.
He called fishermen to follow him.
He proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God;
A heavenly kingdom that set slaves free.
His great victory was over sin and death.

Jesus is Emmanuel — God with us.

He is the Prince of Peace —
a conqueror who came to die
so that we might live.

He is the Great King —
who was,
and is,
and is to come.

A New Year’s Walk

Today we begin another year, 2014. I started my day with a walk in the January sunshine, still reflecting on the Advent and Christmas realities — they have captivated me anew. Things are in bloom here in Arizona, just as there are spaces opening within me, ready to be filled with new life and wonder. The sky is a brilliant blue. The sun is warm. A soft breeze brushes my skin and fills my nose with fragrances of spring. There is too much beauty and bloom here to capture with my amateur photography skills, but every corner seems to have something to proclaim, so I went back for my camera. As I uploaded the images I caught, I read through the Gospel of Luke again and read the story in the vibrant blooming life all around me. Would you take this walk with me?

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

HEARD

HEARD

Zechariah’s wife became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

favor

FAVOR

Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

OVERSHADOW

OVERSHADOW

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

POSSIBLE

POSSIBLE

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.

BLESSED

BLESSED

His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has filled the hungry with good things…

FILLED

FILLED

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…to show mercy…to rescue us…to enable us to serve him without fear.

FEARLESS

FEARLESS

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

SHINE

SHINE

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

RISING

RISING

There was also a prophetess Anna…She was very old…eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

LOOKING FORWARD

LOOKING FORWARD

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.

GRACE

GRACE

May the Lord bless you with the faith to see his story living in and around you each day. Happy New Year!

Barrenness and the Birth of Hope

The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.

Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!

Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?

In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.

“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)

Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.

woman alone in the desert

Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.

It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.

But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.

Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).

If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.

This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?

As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.

That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.

For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.

I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:

“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”

Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”

People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.

So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!

It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.

Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

Soil-Fertilizer

Advent: All About the Details

Every Christmas season my extended family traveled to my maternal grandparents’ home. Like every family, we had a few traditions. There was, of course, the obligatory ham dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, buttery sweet rolls coated with cinnamon and always some kind of unnaturally colored jello salad rife with fruit chunks and marshmallows. (Just the sight of these “salads” gave me the heebie-jeebies so I learned to serve myself a very small portion, chew once or twice and quickly wash it down with a swig of apple juice.) Though our ham dinner was a feast of smells and tastes (except for the jello salad), food was so abundant in the Ford household that it was almost unremarkable.

I preferred other traditions like presents. We children connived, cajoled, complained and otherwise sweet-talked our way through a multi-year campaign to win the right to open a gift on Christmas Eve. Of course, we each chose the gift that was the largest or made the most noise when jiggled. We always knew if the gift was from our grandparents; those were labeled from Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and even, occasionally, friends like Betty Boop or Strawberry Shortcake.

Perhaps our finest and most under-appreciated tradition was packing our five family units into defrosted vehicles to crunch over the snowy streets of Youngstown, Ohio on our way to Evangel Baptist Church for the candle light Christmas Eve service. We arrived after twenty minutes, the car heaters just starting to thaw tingly toes stuffed in our Sunday-best but winter-worst shoes. We’d enter Evangel, drape our heavy coats on the clanging metal hangers and move into the sanctuary to be hand-shaken, bear-hugged and cheek-pinched into a bashful warmth. The Ford family filled two pews in the front, closest to where our grandmother perched at the organ. We children sat, hushed and squirming in the reverent low light of candles, the silence broken only by the sniffling of our thawing noses.

candlelt1-main_fullThe service was always the same. Hark the Herald sung, the nativity story pieced together like quilt squares from Matthew and Luke presented in monotone by a man in a drab suit with a scarlet or powdery blue tie, my grandmother traveling from the organ to the center microphone to offer another soulful rendition of Sweet Little Jesus Boy. The service concluded as we passed a small flame person to person, one taper candle bowed to its neighbor, turning glossy white wicks to blackened tinder. Once the unison melody of Silent Night drifted into quiet, we extinguished our candles, quietly bundled in our coats and braved the cold again for our return trip to the Ford home.

Our arrival home was like the clanging of a bell, marking a new chapter of life. We went from hushed, taper-lit reverence, to the bustle and brilliance of the kitchen preparing for a party. Wassail was passed into waiting hands as grandma uncovered the frosted marble sheet cake, dotted it with pastel colored candles and lit the wicks with a match. Then, with nearly 20 bodies packed into the small eat-in kitchen, we sang a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, for Jesus.

Twenty years later, I can close my eyes and see those Decembers like cherished memorabilia framed, thick and gold, and hung above the mantel. I wouldn’t change them if I could. But as an adult, and as a pastor, I don’t want to perpetuate only the sentiment of Christmas. This is more than a holiday, it is a holy day. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. I don’t want to scrooge all the merriment, but I do want to focus on the spiritual gifts of this season. I want to cherish the family traditions, but hang my heart on the miracle of what began two thousand years ago when Christ was born.  

For years I’ve read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and skimmed the parts about Elizabeth, Anna and even Mary. Because I’ve always loved babies and Jesus, I skipped to the good part about Jesus being born, about him bundled in something soft to protect him from the hay of his trough bed while surrounded by a cuddly petting zoo. I zeroed in on the fairy-tale moments like the prismic star that led foreigners to the new infant king and to the choir of angels singing in the night sky. But as an adult, I’ve learned something about stories, and about life, that I missed as a child. When reading, it’s the skimmed over parts, the slow parts, the seemingly unremarkable details that build to that unimaginable moment, to the moment of discovery, to a new spark of life within.

It was the smell of cinnamon, my grandmother’s vibrato, the heat of wax sliding onto my fingers during Silent Night, the way the candlelight flickered across my cousins’ faces, the crunch of snow under our tires – all of that led up to the moment were we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s the details that build the arc in any story. I’m a better writer than I was five years ago and a much better reader than I was twenty years ago because I’ve learned to I slow down and pay attention to the details. And that’s exactly how I can enhance my experience of Christmas and my understanding of Christ’s birth.

This month we’ll spend hours planning, shopping, wrapping gifts, decorating, attending parties and baking and that’s on top of our regular schedules. We’ll be like jack rabbits leaping through December at a frenzied pace, zigzagging all over the place in search of a tasty morsel. To keep Christmas about Christ, we have to choose to slow down, to stop, and to settle into the details of Advent.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’m taking walks so I can get away from the distractions in my house. While I walk, I focus on breathing deeply and praying. I’m reading the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew daily, now with an eye for detail, seeking out the snippets that I may have glossed over. Suddenly the bits about Elizabeth, Mary and Anna glow from the pages like taper candles. The stories of these women are significant in ways that I never saw before. These sages of Advent are helping me understand not just the miraculous birth of Jesus, but the grandeur of his entire story.

Christmas is not a story in itself; it is the beginning of a story. We don’t celebrate Advent simply because a baby named Jesus was born. We celebrate because Jesus grew up to travel his land preaching good news to the world-weary. Strangely enough, we celebrate Jesus’ birth because he died, and because through his death he defeated sin and death. We celebrate because Jesus rose again to life and because he ascended to heaven where he lives and reigns eternally. And we celebrate because his story, and ours, is not over.

To celebrate well, we need to begin well. That’s why I advocate for Advent, the season of anticipation that builds to the Christmas celebration. That’s why I’m slowing down and focusing on the details. That’s why I’m listening to the sages of Advent. Join me in looking closely at Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, so we can better celebrate Jesus.