the love of friends / my new guitar

In my last post I shared about how my beloved guitar was sadly stolen from our Volvo on Thanksgiving Day in a smash-and-grab theft.

Today, I want to share about how I’ve experienced the cycle of hope that I alluded to in that post.

Not long after I shared on my blog and in social media about the smash-and-grab, a great friend, Mark Aubin, took it upon himself to act. He quickly set up a GoFundMe drive to allow folks to help me replace the guitar and cover the $290 that the window cost to repair.

Within only a few days, we covered the $1000 goal. Then, Continue reading “the love of friends / my new guitar”

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Let Go? [Never!]

Silas, our 3 year old, learned to ride a bike yesterday.

He asked a little girl, Autumn, if he could borrow her pink Frog bike. As she consented, I thought about how to make sure to preserve the integrity of the bike itself since it was clearly on the more expensive end of kids’ bikes.

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I was shocked at what happened next.

As I released the handlebars and relaxed my support on his back and arm, reality unfolded at a pace my imagination could not match. He was balanced and stable, moving faster than I could keep up with at walking speed.

I let go.

Silas was on his own, and he proceeded to ride all over the playground.

After recovering from the shock, my first instinct was to tell Kaile, which I immediately did as soon as I got home [I didn’t cheat and send a text message!]. She was, of course, delighted, so now we are left to brace ourselves for the task of keeping up with him.

Today, in the wake of this moment, I cannot help but continue to reflect on his newfound two-wheeled freedom.

Looking back a couple years, was meaningful when our boys first learned to walk; it was unadulterated joy to watch them first craft words [both boys] and sentences [still waiting on Maelin for that!]; it is presently an incredible gift to observe them interact positively [ie *not* hitting or pushing one another for any length of time].

But there was something so poignant about first riding a bike. It’s an either-or kind of skill. Unlike speaking, reasoning, and walking, riding a bike without training wheels is, unlike so many things in this world, rather binary. You’re doing it-or, well, not.

Suddenly, I was transported to a sloping driveway in Big Rapids, Michigan, in the very early ’90s. Probably not wearing a helmet, I remember piloting my $5 purple banana-seat down the driveway after my dad let go.

They let go.

I let go.

There really is something profound about this process of letting go.

Over a lifetime, each one of us either chooses to or is forced to let go of identities, occupations, relationships, habits. Parents have the very visceral experience of letting go as their children move to new levels of independence.

Along these lines, it seems letting go of one’s child is a process that comes with cultural expectations. As an American with many generations going back in time on both sides, my culture tells me I need to let go, to promote autonomy, to encourage my kids to find their voice and engage their world. While I have some nuance that I place on this strong push for independence, I generally agree.

And yet, for my family and community of faith, we have a special narrative framework in which all of this letting go / autonomy-seeking is couched. The story of God’s creation, preservation, and ultimate restoration of the world and the cosmos through Jesus is my larger framework, and any letting go I do fits into this bigger picture.

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As I reflect on the present-tense grace and long-term hope that my faith offers, my mind also wanders to that time later in life when letting go hurts. Frankly, I assume my kids are going to reject my voice in their lives, whether gently or overtly. In the maturation process, I can’t imagine even most of childhood, latency, and adolescence to be free of challenges and heartache. I’m open to being surprised, but I brace myself as I hear so many stories from other parents.

I think of a friend who has a child in the Army. She worries about him, as one might expect, and prays for his well-being, certainly his physical preservation, even as she also prays for his spiritual, emotional, and relational journeys.

She let go.

I [am/will] let[ing] go.

And when my son rides off on his bike on his own, it’s a picture of my limitations as a parent. I felt tears come to my eyes as I walked home with Silas on his bike and Maelin [somewhat] content in the stroller, imagining our toddler at other milestones in his childhood and later years.

Back to the narrative framework of Christian faith/hope.

So many times in Jewish/Christian Scripture we hear the biblical authors referring to God as a Father. Some texts also give a deep sense of maternal qualities as well, and we conclude how something about God’s character is like that of a parent.

But here’s the problem.

Not all human parents are good. And sadly, some die before having the chance to parent, or they leave, or they’re separated as refugees, or they’re conscripted into a war, or…

Anyway, I’d contend that every parent [myself especially included] inculcates their child with habits and predispositions that are harmful. We could call it the filial passing-on of the sinful nature. Yes, we of course pass on tons of good qualities as well; but it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? We are beautiful, good beings, created in God’s perfect image, yet we, to varying levels, are simultaneously corrupted at our core by sin.

It sounds old-school sometimes to say it this way, but the term *sin* can be quite helpful. In short, sin separates us from God and each other. Conversely, because of God’s transforming grace made apparent in Jesus, we are reunited with God-and with one another as well. As we experience the massive forgiveness God extends to us, we cannot help but keep one another’s sins in perspective.

Remembering God’s grace toward us, we are left with no other option than to extend it to others. 

But God doesn’t just forgive; God also restores. God gives 2nd and 5th and 194th chances, “grace upon grace” as John 1:16 phrases it. The grace we receive helps us pause, take note, then [eventually] search for opportunities to extend that same grace to others.

Back to letting go.

I think one of the most meaningful steps in the journey of faith is when a child’s faith becomes their own. The training wheels-mom and dad and church friends-eventually come off as we launch into an educational journey, military service, or a regular job, and at some point, so many of us discover there was something real and life-giving and salvific happening throughout our entire life, and we didn’t even know it.

On that same *letting go* concept, I’m struck with this closing thought:

Parents let go. Then their children, who often become parents must also let go; and the pattern continues. But God, from what is revealed in written Scripture, is and always will be a good and loving and patient parent. And he even loves us enough to always correct and restore and redeem our wandering selves. Instead of bracing for a future moment of letting go, we can be sure that in God our future is secure and safe, that through Christ our Lord is making all things new through the power of his Spirit.

Unlike Kaile and me and all human parents,

God doesn’t ever become disinterested;

God doesn’t become impatient with us; 

God doesn’t get disappointed in us;

God doesn’t leave us;

God doesn’t let go. 

***

 

 

 

Pelted with Hail [with our Toddlers]

I had an exhausting, exhilarating Monday.

For me, Mondays are full days. After a busy Sunday spent leading, connecting, and doing random tasks at my church, Monday is Kaile’s study day-from 8:30 to 5:30, she’s out at a local coffee place working on coursework while I care for Maelin and Silas.

For those of you who know or have even seen pictures of our toddlers, you have surely gathered at least some hint of their energy levels [high]. Sometimes Silas gets so wound up he yells at the top of his lungs while swinging his arms, which are sometimes attached to toys, which sometimes fly out of his hands and crash throughout the house-or on Maelin’s head.

Maelin, you must know, has one of the most piercing and distinctive crying sounds I’ve heard in my limited experience. It is quite loud, loud enough that to warrant sympathy from neighbors and friends-and a few threats to call the police on us. I suppose that’s a story for another time.

The weather today forecasted rain, so we were forced to remain inside until about ten in the morning. By that point we were all beyond ready to be outside our 800 square foot apartment, so I put the boys in rain slickers and Batman boots, and we sought our fortune at nearby Sylvan playground.

Events unfolded with relative peace: Silas found and proceeded to carefully, almost scientifically inspect a tiny fly, Maelin careened through puddles on his three-wheeled scooter, and daddy was thankful for the change in weather that had allowed us to be outside.

Initially was gorgeous.

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The sidewalks were dry, and the boys and I were more or less carefree.

It was moments after having snapped this picture that I became aware of the interesting cloud formation in the distance

I heard a dull roar in the distance.

Maelin! Silas! We need to get going!

The boys ambled along distractedly, as is normal, so I coached them unceasingly.

“Mr. Tiny [Maelin], come on! I’m going to count, 1-2-3!”

“You guys, we have got to go!”

Here’s the picture I took right before the deluge. Note the dark blue clouds to the left side of the frame.

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Soon the rain hit, crushing and cold. As I heard the sound, I realized it wasn’t rain at all.

It was hail.

Pea-sized pellets began to pelt us.

Unfortunately I had parked our stroller rather far away. Silas was beginning to cry out, “daddy, the ice is hitting me! The ice, owiiee! Help me!” Maelin was just sort of crying, lacking the words to express what he was experiencing.

As the hail blasted them, I was thankful they had their helmets on as I presently found myself running, holding the handle to each boy’s scooter with my two hands. They cried as I coached, and we raced to the stroller which has protective covers.

They would soon be safe and warm, but at that moment things were bleak.

For me, I was a little frustrated at being cold, pelted, wet, and now faced with a lot more work once I made it home. A bath would be in the works, plus drying their small clothes, not a typical mid-day thing.

Once they were in the stroller for a couple minutes, the hail stopped. And on our way home they were incredibly calm, stunned-no, catatonic! after thinking back on what had just happened.

Their calmness allowed me the presence of mind to reflect on some of my own life experiences, times when I have felt closer or farther from God, closer or farther from others. Interesting how proximity to God and proximity to others seem to correlate rather closely!

And it was during the the walk when I again realized how God parents me, how God watches over us. Our family, though certainly stretched thin at times, is together and quite intact. We are tired, probably undernourished from a diet consisting of far too many chicken nuggets and peanut butter & jelly than is healthy [but oh so convenient!], and don’t always have some of the conveniences we might like.

But we are okay. Kaile is growing massively in her graduate program in drama therapy; I am growing in my vocation and the related skillsets, and our boys are making real progress not only in their growth and development but also in their relationship with one another.

And during recent stormy seasons, God’s goodness has been especially clear.

Like the time we were in San Francisco, stranded with two kids, no family around, and the news of no job.

Like the time I prayed for a renewed sense of community, and God reveals new relationships and blesses them.

Like how our kids, who we pray for all the time, and who are really high intensity, pause and say “daddy, I love you.”

The words of Jesus in his cosmos-shifting Sermon on the Mount ring as true as ever:

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. [Matthew 6:30-33]

Watching as my boys trusted completely in me during the hail storm with their white-knuckled grip on their scooters reminded me of the kind of trust I have to place in God.

And here’s the best news of all: as a parent, I’m grumpy, inconsistent, frazzled…

…and God isn’t.

***

 

 

Light Enters Darkness :: A Spoken Word Poem for Christmas

This past Advent, a small team and I were tasked with planning and leading our Christmas Eve worship gathering. In lieu of a message or sermon, we decided to motivate a small team of performers and tell the big story of Jesus entering into humanity-the incarnation.

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God’s Son, Jesus, took on human flesh and entered our struggle. He celebrated humanity and affirmed God’s love for us. If any of us were wondering if God cares about the world, we needn’t look any further than Jesus!

Our group of 7 [Laurel, Ethan, Anna, Lucas, Zach, Kaile, and yours truly] performed this poem Christmas Eve for our church and the many guests who were present from out of town.

Ok, about this poem. It’s in the spoken word style, so if you’re unfamiliar head to YouTube and look it up. Essentially, it’s a rhythmic iteration of poetry that holds all the typical elements of poetry in one hand while clinging to lyrical performance with the other. It’s a thing of its own.

For this poem, it ended up taking a fourfold format. Inspired by the insights of my friend and co-worker Suzanne, it traces the theological theme of light entering darkness throughout four portions of Scripture:

1. Genesis 1-3 / 2. The Old Testament Prophets / 3. John 1:1-14 / 4. Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2

I’d suggest reading this out loud or taking turns with a small group of people. There are some italicized and bolded words, and this was part of the original formatting for the poem. The markings serve to highlight inner rhyming and alliteration, and assisted the readers [and myself of course!] in our performance role.

If anyone is inspired to tuck this away and use it in any form or function, I would love to hear about how it connects with listeners-so please keep me informed!

Ok. Here goes.

Light Enters Darkness

Genesis 1-3

“Let there be light” spoke an ancient voice over an expanse of space filled to overflowing with darkness, there was no sun glowing, there was nothingness; there was emptiness waiting for divine direction, restless creation waiting for God’s creative initiation-and the only relationship was between the creative One and the expanse that had been caused – from nothing, ex nihilo – to come – so: now there was something.  WUAes5HCTQiaRT+1ju6luA.jpg

“Let there be light” came this word from an ancient Creator, spinning together a world in the expanse of space, separating every night from its day, governing each rotation of the planet with God’s particular pace; now there were distinct days – and while each night offers a break from the hot sun, each day is filled brightly filled with energetic light, and every turn of the madly rotating globe gives the sun a chance to offer new hope: yes, let there be light!

“Let there be light” rang out the word, and it was heard all throughout the cosmos, it echoed even as the stars came into their celestial setting and plants began to grow; and our planet’s first inhabitants quickly began to feel love the Creator was showing. And although the glowing light of day caused night to flee for many hours as it radiates, darkness would eventually creep in in the form of a snake displacing the tranquility of a world so newly made within the vastness of space.

“Let there be light” became less metaphorical and more practical as spiritual darkness wrapped its shadow over our spherical planet. Adam and Eve couldn’t stand it, but theirs were the only hands in it; their actions had landed them in oppositionoppositionopposition to their source, their hope for their children’s children. They had chosen to rebel from their Creator though he still pursued them.

Yes, “let there be light” was a promise that did not cease after our ancient ancestors experienced death; no, there was more story left waiting to be told as a brief portion of inspired text revealed the plans that God would execute throughout history. And yeah it’s a mystery Jesus was distant to Eve and Adam, and yeah Jesus is not mentioned by name-but God’s ultimate intention remained. Jesus would eventually come to crush the serpent’s taunting head, trampling down death by his own death, one day shocking the evil powers that thought the end of a life meant the continuation of the world’s spiritual night.

“Let there be light” was a promise, yes, for the sun to shine and divide day and night; but God’s true delight was to eventually end the seemingly endless cycles of violence that continue turning human creativity into a crushing proclivity toward complacent silence. Yes, God was tireless in his promises and he put into motion a plan, from the start, that placed eternity as a central desire in human hearts.

Let. There. Be. Light.

Prophetic Witness

Light will one day come to this world currently shielded spiritually from the son, the prophets, priests, and psalmists wrote about a light that would come break in, that would come take on sin and remove this barrier for all men and women. These writers were woke, ready to offer hope to the beaten down people of Israel-and what was spoken? What new horizons did they open? What could these ancient people put their hope in?

Light will one day come to this world and brighten the night like an explosion, but the oceans of text we behold first told of a king who do real justice on planet earth, who was foretold to rule righteously through a humble birth in obscurity. Insightfully, the Psalm-writers insisted we worship the king who would one day appear, though they often got distracted with their own rulers and their own political atmosphere, the ancient writers were still pretty keen on the gravity of God someday portraying himself eternally-and clearly-to all people, to those who are far, like us, and to those who were near.

fullsizeoutput_a5eLight will one day come to this world, and it was supposed to be a virgin who would conceive, and yeah that’s hard to believe but God would also give us eyes to spiritually see, so in keeping with the words of Isaiah maybe this foretelling was to be taken literally. Isaiah spoke of a virgin conceiving a baby. Yeah, well maybe, though the idea was swell few believed Immanuel, God with us, was something they could really trust-mainly because they sometimes lost faith that God is truly for us.

And yet, they insisted: Light will one day come to this world, said Micah. From the tribe of Judah, he said, from Bethlehem-the house of bread-and instead of just feeding the people for a day Jesus would rescue them from death. He would shepherd his people and become their peace, yes, this man born in obscurity, he would spiritually release them from captivity and bring them life eternally: this was the prophetic certainty.

Light will one day come to this world, the prophets said. Israel would finally be secure and vindicated; their nation’s suffering wasn’t wasted, for everything God initiated could now be tasted and seen [even touched and believed!] ..their holy nation was newly appreciated for giving the world Light to see, a living hope to believe. Though not all would eventually perceive the subversive authority of a new Messiah, the many who would receive Him would know he didn’t just die on Calvary’s tree but he rose up and conquered hell below then ascended to sit at heaven’s throne.

Light will one day come to this world said the prophets-nothing could stop it repeated Isaiah, for one special night a Savior would be born who be called Christ the Lord. The people would see a great light and darkness would be dispelled when Jesus would rhetorically compel them to understand their ancient laws in a new way. In this new day they would come out of the spiritual dark and discover their law was meant not to simply govern outer actions but to transform the heart.

Yeah, light will one day come to this world-but there was a lot of waiting involved as silence crept over the prophets and the Spirit was hushed and; for four-hundred years the people had to trust and believe that all of their fears would someway, somehow lead to deep peace. The captives would one day be released, and God’s people would help the world to see hope unfurled through the clouds and darkly shrouded swirls.

Yes, insisted the prophets: light will one day come to this world.

John 1:1-14

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. Moon and sun came later, stars would expand into space at the hands of the Creator; but the Word was first in this plan; the God-Man was already prepared to become humanity’s Savior. The Word was first, and as all creation began to burst out of the formless expanse, everything was held together in Jesus’ careful hands. Yes, Jesus the Life-Light blazed out of the darkness and the darkness couldn’t put the light out, and though the creation would come unglued the creative life-light would one day come down to pursue God’s plan to turn everything around. 

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. And at the apex of history, a man named John would come into the nexus of creation’s fragility-to baptize and mark out the path to the kingdom of God according to salvation’s necessity. He came as a nephew-to-be to Joseph and Mary, who was also carrying a surprise baby: Jesus, John’s cousin-to-be. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were scared to death as their parenting role shifted for the years they had left, yes-they were old-but as their story unfolds our eyes behold the hope of one who would go before the Messiah, boldly proclaiming the coming day of the LordIMG_6435

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. So as John pointed the way to the Life-Light, he did everything he could do to live right, to give sight to those who always felt like they were tightly sealed in the darkness; John started to proclaim a new kind of hope to the chosen people of Yahweh, the one God of all gods. John explained a new way of carving out identity, how God’s people weren’t meant to be an entity unto themselves but a people ready to be responsive to the world’s deepest needs. In history we see how Jesus was supported, freed, and upheld because of his cousin John, we see him as a foundation He was built upon, through the relational plan of God.

Jesus the Life-Light was first-present to God from day one. The Son, the life-light, was tempted, tried, and rejected by many of his own people; so many were caught in the swirls of evil directives and they couldn’t believe he was who he claimed to be even though it was plain to see his ministry was filled to the brim with real healings yet maintaining an emphasis on spiritual seeing.

Yes, believing was the hardest part, for the people walked in darkness, and though they saw a great light, Jesus the Life-light was often confused for another desert leader stealing the limelight. And yet Jesus insisted we are blessed who believe without seeing, so even though faith is supported through the doubts of Thomas we can honestly trust the promise of the Life-Light is also for us.

Jesus the Life-Light was first – present to God from day one. So when He finally did come on a special night, the Life-Light, the Son came to usher in the kingdom and make not only our spiritual lives, but all creation right.

Mary / Joseph Sequence

Mary ::

“You will have a son” said this angel, and I was sort of, well, overcome. See, my life story hasn’t exactly been boring but imagining a baby boy inside my body was beyond what my mind could explore at that point. But the angel implored me not to be afraid, I had found favor with God; I was okay, even with all the mistakes I’ve made over my years, my weeks, my days. Yeah, it’s okay, it’s okay. But then I had to tell my fiancé.

Joseph ::

…It’s ok, said my fiancé, but that wasn’t the news I felt ready to hear that day, NO. The heat of anger rose up in my soul as her words scattered over me, and as I lost control, then BOOM! As I put my hand down on the table my voice rose slightly in my outer self and I asked Mary un-politely what really happened to her that night she gave herself to someone else. But she sold me a crock story about the *Holy Spirit* – and I wasn’t prepared to hear that, my anger was so near that.. It ate me up, and I said forget that. And I turned and left, thinking I’d never come back.

Mary ::

“You will have a son” said this angel, and with Joseph, well, I wondered during the argument whether running away might make sense. But I hung in there, I stuck to my guns, and… I heard the message, and though my pregnancy had just begun I had no choice but to wait for Joseph to come back and listen close, to trust that somehow God would speak to my betrothed, that we could find the forgiveness we needed most. See, I had my simple testimony, and even though my time away from Joseph was overwhelmingly lonely I had God above holding me, I had God’s Son exploding me… and I had God’s Spirit enfolding me.

Joseph ::

I was ready for a quick, quiet divorce; of course Mary had her story but I was still unconvinced-there had to be more for me. So I told myself let it be, I got down on my knees, and wrestling with the anger I couldn’t appease-the burning pain inside-I just closed my eyes and prayed for hope to return to my quiet life. I slept light… hoping for a peace from God to ease the unrest within me.

Mary ::

Inside, I wondered and prayed God would work within Joseph as he had in my life. I had tried to convince with my visitation story but in a moment of hesitation Joseph said, “that’s not working for me.” But God, if you can, speak to Joseph, speak to my love; can you assure him that I haven’t given myself to anyone? That I’m carrying your Son? That he’s still my beloved one?

Joseph ::

I loved the feel of sleep. Then, as I rested, suddenly: a dream! Maybe you’ve had the kind of dreaming-feel where everything happening seems to be real-like you’re literally living out the scene? This was no third person dream experience; it was as real as hearing from someone else, someone else with authority, who clearly knew more than me. It was an angel-just like for my fiancé, Mary! An angel carried to me a message about Mary’s Son, the one that I had doubted, and the thing about it was she was speaking God’s truth-there was no way around it.

So the angel told me to name our little one Jesus, and mentioned something about how He’d one day free us, free us from sin and deliver us through the power given to Him. There was something about the ancient prophecies, something they foretold about Mary and me: He’s Immanuel-God with us-and all this from our tiny, unborn Son whom I haven’t yet even had the chance to love.

Mary ::

Vindicated. Vindicated! Though I had waited so patiently, now my joy can’t be overstated: Joseph finally believes me even if it took a God-given dream. You see God is good, so I’m gonna sing out, I’ll tell the world all about how God has looked upon me, seen me, freed me, believed in me, and even conceived the Son of God’s life deep inside me. Yes, the Mighty One has done great things for me; my heart explodes in celebration. From one generation to the next God’s mercy extends to those who fear him; He’s near to them. And for the humble ones seeking and trusting him he lifts them high. But God also brings down the proud and afflicts those who rule unjustly in his eyes.

fullsizeoutput_9f2Yeah, we can trust Yahweh to feed the hungry while the rich get richer but more spiritually empty. It doesn’t even make sense to me but God acts mercifully not only to my people, Israel, but to everybody who responds to the love of the God-child still inside me. Praise be to mighty Yahweh, the God who not only loves little old me, but cares enough for the world’s problems to not just let it be, but through his Son enter into history and through victory over death he would bind up our wounds, heal us, give us the Spirit with his breath; he would rescue us from our ancient enemy, and set us free.

***

From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

I recently tweeted this:

Since my Twitter link to my Facebook page, the conversation continued there. Head to my page in the event that you’re curious, but suffice it to say a *conversation* ensued that has everything to do with what Jesus has to say about violence, self-defense, and killing in general.

Then, today at church we prayed for victims of gun violence:

We cry out to you [God], heal our land from the scourge of gun violence. In the coming days and weeks as our leaders debate solutions, Lord we ask that you grant us the voice to speak truth to power and demonstrate sacrificial compassion to the hurting.

That’s a good summary of the prayer I have mirrored in my soul as I write, so please forgive any sentiment you read that may come across the wrong way.

Now, some biblical background, since I’m a person of faith and since I call Jesus my Savior and my God.

Jesus / Swords

In our discussion, the point was made that Jesus tells his followers to purchase a sword in Luke 22:36. Here’s the ESV version of that verse:

36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Now we are reminded this is is Jesus talking. When it came up, I was reminded of the more intense moments Jesus has, namely his clearing out of the temple. There are couple Gospel passages that feature this event, so here’s one from John 2:13-22, which includes his use of some kind of whip:

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Do we have the makings of a religious zealot?

Does Jesus actually belong to the radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow Rome through the use of force? Is he a sicarii, a dagger person, who wants to quietly knife centurions and government officials that cause so much taxation and injustice toward the Jewish people?

Reza Aslan thinks so. He makes his case in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013]. He bases his case in large part on Luke 22:38, where the disciples apparently possess two swords, and Jesus responds by saying, in the ESV translation, “it is enough.”

Ok, two swords is enough? To overthrow an empire? To defend a group of Jewish men against a large armed force that would come to take Jesus?

I think not. 

You can disagree with me, but it seems two swords isn’t quite enough to take on the Jewish temple guards in addition to the Roman legions who really held the regional power.

Jesus confronts Peter just verses later, telling him to put away his sword. Here’s Luke 22:50-53 [ESV]:

…one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.

So why does Jesus say “it is enough” in Luke 22:38?

It’s a good thing we can study language, since this is all about how words are being used. In the Bible, the phrase Jesus uses is written in Koine Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament. It looks a bit like this:

Ἱκανόν ἐστιν

Literally, at face value, it means, “it is enough.”

Maybe you’ve said to your kids, or to your partner, or to a friend, “hey, that’s enough!” “That’s enough of that!”

“That’s enough!” is a far better rendering of Jesus’s words, for he clearly insists they put away their swords only a few verses later as the authorities close in to take him to his death. He even goes so far as to heal the gentleman affected by his disciple’s act of defense [the dude lops off an ear].

“That’s enough!” is precisely what the NIV and NLT translations contain, so I guess I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

Various grammatical configurations of that same phrase, Ἱκανόν ἐστιν, can be found in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it most often means “that’s enough of that!”

Ok, but what about Jesus instructing his followers to purchase swords in Luke 22:36?

For starts, I thought I’d look into a commentary. This is from the New American Commentary, and the citation is at the end of this post:

And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned. See 20:20–26, “Context.” The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).*

This author, with his biblical scholarship background, renders the idea of “buying a sword” as a metaphorical preparedness for future suffering and spiritual conflict. Early church history reveals a great deal of death among early Christians; volumes have been written on the subject, and the blood of martyrs has indeed been a source of faith for many.

Other readers, such as my friend and former teacher, Peter Simmonds, take this passage as literal. He thinks Jesus is simply telling his followers to buy swords and defend themselves out on the road. That’s certainly possible.

So, I thought I’d check another commentary, an older tome translated from its original German. The original publishing date was 1872. Here’s the English translation of the commentary on verse 36:

Vs. 36. Therefore He said.—Οῦ̓ν subjoins the opposite of their acknowledgment, that at that time they did not lack the least thing. He that hath a purse, let him take it, ἀράτω: Let him not leave it at home, but take it with him on the journey, in order by so careful a preparation to assure himself against any possibility of a lack. Even so let him who possesses a wallet, hasten to avail himself of it. And he that hath not, neither purse nor wallet, let him sell his garment, which he otherwise would at last expose to robbery, and buy—not a purse or a wallet, but what is now more indispensable than clothing and food—a sword. Self-defence is now not only an urgent necessity, but the first necessity of all. This last word we have to understand, not in an allegorical, but in a parabolical sense. If one understands (Olshausen) the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17), he is then also obliged to give to the garment, the wallet, and the shoes a spiritual signification. Our Lord will simply, in a concrete pictorial form, represent to His disciples the right and the duty of necessary defence, in order that they may, by the very opposition to the former command (vs. 35), finally come to the consciousness that an entirely peculiar danger shall break in upon them.**

Oosterzee insists we read Jesus’s command in a parabolic sense. He likens the sword to the spiritual sword referenced in Ephesians 6:17, a passage that uses military language to refer to our spiritual defense against the power of spiritual forces within a dark world.

If I were to go back even further, to early church manuscripts on the subject, they would reveal similar things. To be sure, one could probably dig up scholars who have come to a different conclusion on the topic, but the point stands Jesus is concerned here about spiritual self-defense, not about promoting sword ownership in the 1st century or gun ownership in the 21st century.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus’s disciples were almost all killed for their allegiance to Him.

Indeed, every time we read Scripture, we take it into context; a text without a context is a pretext! In this context, I agree with the commentary in reading the command to purchase swords as metaphorical, for Jesus commands his disciples to put away their swords so immediately. Jesus so radically condemns violence elsewhere in the Gospels that this command to buy swords sticks out like a sore thumb. When taken literally, doesn’t square theologically with Jesus’s central teachings.

One more thought on that matter. Most American Christians would not read Jesus’s strong moral injunctions as literal. For example, the whole bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle and how that’s about how challenging it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God [Mt. 19:24/Mk. 10:25/Lk. 18:25]. That subject hits a bit close to home, so we tidy it up as metaphorical. Point made?

Even a cursory glance through the Sermon on the Mount forces one to reconsider how we are to approach violence and even self-defense. Don’t murder, and don’t even call someone a fool! Forget an eye for an eye; turn your cheek! Love your enemy and pray for those who seek to harm you!

If Jesus’s encouragement to buy swords in Luke 22:36 is to be taken literally, it’s a theologically frail case, and it doesn’t hold water when taken alongside the rest of Jesus’s words-or with early church history. There have been volumes written on Christian non-violence, and this post only alludes briefly to some of the highlights. There exists a lively debate on the subject, of course, and I would enjoin you to be a part of it.

But I do join a host of others who are on similar biblical and theological footing, so if you want to read more, here is a great list to get started.

Now, about the land of the free.

Our American Context / Politics / 2nd Amendment

All of that said, I am a 21st century American. It’s no longer a sword debate; it’s a gun debate. Now let me put my cards on the table. I’m a white guy from the American Midwest-Northwest Michigan in particular; I grew up reading the NRA magazine which featured [I’m guessing it still features this, though I no longer read the magazine] personal stories of how guns helped people defend themselves in their homes and businesses; I also went to a primarily white, evangelical church, which contained plenty of NRA supporters as well as many who held to an opposing viewpoint on guns.

I even owned a gun for about a decade, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

I grew up hunting with my dad, and given the chance, I’d hunt tonight [opening day in Michigan for rifles was four days ago!]. I wholeheartedly support gun hunting, and I especially appreciate how hunting is local, and how the meat is organic, grass-fed-and typically really cheap when you put together all the factors.

I digress.

My Personal Journey

Anyway, hunting aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty that everyone loves to philosophize about: that hypothetical moment your house is suddenly invaded by a hostile enemy seeking to kill you and do terrible things to your kids and wife.

It’s a very unusual scenario for most NRA members and law-abiding gun owners, but it’s an important ethical question nonetheless. As I reflect on this question, I consider my own experiences, which can be excellent teachers.

The first of which comes from sometime in my college years, when I learned in-person that one of my uncles had received his concealed-carry license, which allowed him to carry a small weapon in most public places. I remember asking him, “would you really shoot someone if they broke into your house?”

He replied, “yes Ben, I’d shoot them, and I’d shoot to kill. I have it from good sources that it’s a legally bad idea to simply maim someone; they could sue the shirt off your back. I’d shoot to kill and not ask questions.”

I was taken aback. I cannot imagine the moral weight of killing someone, especially with no questions asked. I’m sure there is another home-defense ethic that departs from my uncle’s view, but hey, a lot of people agree with him.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in sub/urban Grand Rapids. It was urban yet suburban, you see? Anyway, I walk home from work one day and there’s caution tape across my sidewalk. I asked the cops if I could return to my house, and they let me through. I soon discovered, through my roommate, that he had heard gunshots just minutes prior.

The story was ghastly.

My next-door neighbor, Gary, and his estranged adult son became involved in a dispute. Four shots later, he killed him in his own living room.

Dead. 

The gravity of the act set in for me a couple weeks later when I noticed Gary moving new couches in. Maybe it was coincidence and Gary needed new couches, but it certainly seemed as if they had been soaked in his own son’s blood. Did Gary have to kill his son? Was there another option? Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer.

Fast forward again. I’m married now, living in true urban Grand Rapids. One night we notice some things out of place, and Kaile is freaking out about whether someone had come into our house. We locked the doors, called the police, and nothing came of it.

That is, until a few weeks later. As we returned from church, I saw my young neighbor climbing down a ladder. He was in a real hurry, and I confronted him. “Hey, where are you going with that?” “Oh, the other neighbor said they needed the ladder!” I didn’t buy it, so I asked a few more questions and promptly went inside to call the police.

Sure enough, our home had been entered, at least once and probably several times. And it was almost certainly the same group of kids both times.

A few months later, I finally decided since my hunting career appeared to be going nowhere and my convictions about shooting someone-even in self defense-had slowly changed, I decided I’d sell my gun [responsibly]. I simply cannot read Christian Scripture and square the act of shooting someone, even in one’s home, even in self-defense.

That’s just me, mind you.

Now, let’s reverse to when I was finishing up 8th grade. There’s an NRA catchphrase and bumpersticker that originates in the mid-seventies:

“I Will Give Up My Gun When They Peel My Cold Dead Fingers From Around It.”

Charlton Heston later re-popularized it during a pro-gun speech in May 2000 [8th grade for me]:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!‘” 

NRA.Heston

Unsurprisingly, it showed up on the NRA I read in my home not long after the speech.

There’s a real connection in our country to the 2nd Amendment, and not without some compelling arguments. It’s treated almost as a sacred text in some circles. Among the primary examples is this: if fair gun control laws are extended, criminals won’t obey anyway!

Well if that’s our logic, let’s not have speed limits either, since criminals [and many of us!] routinely disobey those too!

I grew up around a community that embraced this cold-dead-hands attitude. And though I challenge aspects of this mentality, I have respect for those who done the ethical work and searched their conscience to conclude that they would indeed use a gun, in an extreme circumstance. Though I disagree and have lots of reasons for my own beliefs, I respect their conclusions.

They have the right, after all.

Gun Control / Research / My Conclusion

That said, I posit the politics related to taking a closer look at how guns are sold and the 2nd Amendment is carried out [remember, its’ phrasing begins with “A well regulated militia…”!] is a different thing entirely.

There is research that correlates the total number of firearms with total deaths. Go do the search, please don’t take my word for it; but it’s real. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. I recently got some pushback for making this observation, and the line of thinking was this:

“That is undeniable, but it is little different than saying there is a correlation of drowning in countries with higher proportions of pools, lakes or ponds. I think it’s a red herring. …The real question would be: is there a correlation between the total number of guns in a city/state/country and the violent crime rate? Or the total suicide rate? If guns kill people, it should follow that there would be more killing where there are guns, and less killing where there aren’t guns. Similarly, there should be less violent crime where there are less guns. I posit that talk about gun deaths and gun suicides doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we’ve been told to believe.”

These are some great points. To take it piecemeal, at least we are in agreement about the essential facts of the matter. More guns=more gun deaths. But is there higher homicide? Well.. yes, there is, at least according to a study conducted between 1980 and 2010. Read it for yourself.

There’s more pushback, to be sure. There are plenty of stories, as I mentioned earlier, about responsible citizens defending their homes and businesses. It is true that guns can be used responsibly, and this does happen regularly. But that does not outweigh the deaths. This gets interesting, because it is politically charged, and there are agendas at stake. Here’s an article to get some conversation going.

But that’s, you know, “liberal media.” 

Let’s try putting on our thinking caps and seeing this from another angle. Let’s say, hypothetically, we all get our concealed permit licenses and .38s or 9mms or .45s. Pick your style, revolver or modern semi-auto, whatever floats your boat. Would crime decrease? Or would criminals simply arms themselves more heavily and plan a bit better? Would communities come together and begin to trust one another more? Or would society begin to splinter more, even, than what we see presently?

According to the research to which I have alluded, this hypothetical society with at least one sidearm per person would actually have more crime than our current setup. And I dare to say there would be a lot less trust of one’s neighbor.

And I’ll add this: do we really want to live like that? Do we want do distrust our neighbor with such vehemence that we all carry weapons? I get that there are particular situations where this kind of distrust follows logically. Some of us live in unsafe areas. However, of the many responsible gun-owners I know, every single one lives in a safe area. This whole vigilante-justice/defend-my-family scenario rarely happens.

I’ll take that a step further. I often hear suicide-related conversations going this way: “if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll find away; even if they don’t have access to a gun, they’ll use pills or jump off a bridge.” Yeah, there is some truth to that; the human will is a powerful force indeed. Guns make it easier, but if the will is there, it’s insuppressible.

But let’s use that same they’ll-find-a-way logic in the case of someone like Adam Lanza, the perpetrator at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. He killed his mom, then proceeded to use her gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, to kill 20 kids between 6 and 7 years old, plus 6 adults, not including his mother.

Hopefully that point is sinking in: the people-kill-people/they’ll-find-a-way-if-they-want-to logic works both ways. Adam wanted to kill, so he found guns to do it. If we ignore the link between the total number of guns and the total number of deaths, we miss an important point: access to guns makes a difference, even if we’re the good guys. For those of us with kids, the Sandy Hook shooting was terrifying. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I do now, and I cannot imagine the horror involved.

All of this said, I continue to respect the gun owner who keeps their arsenal under lock and key, and who is careful about gun-related security. And as I have also said, I do agree that guns can be a perfectly useful tool. Some part ways with me on this point, but while I don’t particularly enjoy the phrasing of the Second Amendment as a “right,” I have no problem with responsible gun ownership.

It’s just a bit jarring when so much of our world has no access to food or water and we Americans are quibbling about owning guns as a “right.” So many have not the “right” to even drink water while we insist on the “right” to have guns. Maybe we could think of it more like a privilege.

And I do question the necessity of such powerful guns as were possessed by Adam Lanza’s mom. Semi-automatic assault rifles? Is that a real need for the typical hunter? Well, no, it’s not. And I understand they will not be peeled from anyone’s cold, dead hands anytime soon. Shooting guns can be can be lots of fun, I have enjoyed trap shooting and target practice as much as the next person. But that does not mean they are not a liability.

Consider the story of a friend I went to high school with years ago.

He is a veteran, gun enthusiast, and fierce supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That said, his service in the military has for him, as for many, come at a cost. He wrote courageously in a social media thread about his responsible use of firearms during dark seasons in his life:

“…I will say this, personally the times when I’ve felt on edge, when I’ve felt the severe urge to end myself, I’ve given my firearms to a friend until I get back to a better place. And that just goes with good training and knowing oneself. Did getting rid of my firearms for a couple nights make the problem go away? Fuck no. Because I knew there were any number of ways I could still take my life.”

I really appreciate the honesty. And I’ve expressed my sincere gratitude for the sacrifices of veterans in this very blog; my concerns are not about that.

Yet, though I am thankful my friend gave his guns to a friend during a trying time, I fear there are many who share not the same restraint. For example, Devin Kelley, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church massacre who took the lives of 26 people ranging in age from a mother and her unborn child, a toddler, teens, adults, and elderly.

Yes, many of us know that a gentlemen shot at and wounded Kelley then pursued him on the freeway before he crashed his SUV a few miles later. Yes, maybe if people in the congregation were carrying, they could have stopped him.

So let’s all beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears and kill that next attacker..? That is the response of so many, and I see why. There is a potential to save some. But my concern is that what we may gain hypothetically will be lost in reality. 

Despite our concealed carry laws and the staggering 310 million guns owned in our country, not a single mass shooting in the past 33 years has been stopped by a responsible gun owner. Not even Sutherland Springs-they were close, but still too late.

Continuing the vigilante/defend-my-family conversation, here’s something I recently saw on Twitter:

Now this, at least in my experience, is the typical mentality that so often goes into a typical philosophy of self-defense. Rarely is it, “oh goodness, I hope never to have to make the decision to kill, even if it’s in self-preservation.” So often it’s what you see here. So often the American philosophy is, “oh, just wait until I get my chance to show ’em who’s boss.” 

Just like driving a car [especially a powerful one] gives us a sense of control and aggression [consider our problem with road rage], carrying a gun also gives us a feeling of power. And according to a 2014 FBI study, it also makes one 8 times more likely to be shot and killed in an argument than be killed trying to stop a crime.

I guess real life isn’t quite like the movies.

Even Christians have this smug I’ll-stop-the-bad-guy mentality, and as you read above, even pastors. “They better know God because they would be meeting Him that day.” Thanks for capitalizing Him, pastor, that’s grammatically respectful of God. But what’s with the egotistical attitude?

Would that it were not so common.

And I’m not saying he is outside his rights whatsoever. As I said, I respect those who have come to the conclusion that they would, under extreme circumstances, shoot to defend themselves. But I am saying this kind of smug self-confidence fueled by a firearm has absolutely no place among the people of God. 

My hope for the average non-Christian American is to consider the research and go about the conversation thoughtfully. So many are already doing this. My hope for my fellow Christians is to do the same, but to go further by considering the example of our teacher, mentor, and Savior, Jesus, who laid down his life for ours. Keep your guns, if that’s your honest conclusion, but please put away the smug attitudes and remember the false sense of power guns can grant their owner.

Picture Jesus carrying a Smith and Wesson .45 and you have to admit it’s a strange image.   I admit that I wonder what the world might be like if we were as devoted to Jesus’s teachings in the same way we’re devoted to 18th century constitutional literature.

Now let’s go back to personal experience. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “wow, this guy doesn’t even care about his family, he wouldn’t defend them.” That would be a logical thing to wonder. Well it’s not something I have glossed over. True, I have done pretty well over the years. We have only been broken into twice, and it was just kids. I was pushed off my bike a while back, but verbal deescalation did the trick. But I guess I honestly haven’t been in a life-threatening situation.

I’ll gladly answer the age-old hypothetical question by telling you the conclusion I’ve come to based on my convictions and life experience. I’d first do my best to help my family escape a life-threatening situation. I’d try to deescalate verbally. I’d phone law enforcement if possible. I do not keep much cash around or valuables. I’m no Schwarzenegger, but I can grapple and I am trained to physically restrain another person, and in the unlikely event of an attack I have no problem using the physical agency I have been given.

Though all of this is helpful, it wouldn’t help me if I was cornered with my family in my apartment without a phone. If that were to be how I would meet my end, I guess I’d pray in my soul while shielding my wife and our two toddler boys, and do my best to absorb the bullets with my physical body.

And if I didn’t make it, emergency services would have to peel my family members, alive or otherwise, from my cold, dead hands. 

***

 

 

 

*Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 555). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (pp. 342–343). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

New Job, New City / Same Calling.

On May 22nd I wrote a post on how I had lost my job, but not my calling.

On June 22nd I accepted a new position at Palo Alto Vineyard Church, doing almost the same stuff I had been doing at City Church. I’ll be doing ministry with young people, plus some design/visual storytelling/social media/communications/outreach/fill-in-the-blank.

Below are a few of the folks I’ll be working with [though I’m replacing Matt-red shirt].

PA.Vineyard.Staff

My calling continues.

A lot has happened over the past 7 weeks, needless to say! On May 8th, I was laid off, and over the weeks since, there has been a lot of wondering going on in our home-and some stress for sure.

The peace I had been experiencing as I discovered my job was expiring was held right alongside the tensions stemming from the myriad concerns about possible transition. We had plans to consider the possibility of a move back to Michigan slated for July 15th, meaning we intentionally did not talk about this at all even though we planned to begin that conversation mid-summer.

But we are staying here, and it seems things are simply rearranged. We believe God is working through the din and confusion and change, bringing us through to something good and right, to a place where we will learn, contribute and lead.

That place is Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is rather unique in a number of ways. Similar to San Francisco, it has a fascinating history. But instead of the Summer of Love, cable cars, and sourdough [ok, I know there’s a lot more!], Palo Alto has a different edge. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale [where we will likely be living], and their surrounding towns are part of what is referred to locally as “the peninsula.”

Tesla is headquartered here.

The Googleplex, Google’s headquarters and largest campus, is in neighboring Mountain View, where our church office is located.

In Menlo Park, which is adjacent to Palo Alto to the northwest, sits a little [big] campus to a little company called Facebook.

Oh-and just slightly south of Sunnyvale in Cupertino you’ll find Apple’s headquarters. You know how iPhones have a default weather setting for Cupertino? Here’s why!

There are plenty more world-shaking companies around, lots of economic activity, and some strange things I’ll take plenty of time to get used to.

But within all the craziness, within the bubble that is Silicon Valley, people are still interested in Jesus. No matter how advanced the cars and phones and apps, there are still many who are drawn to this ancient Jewish peasant we believe to be God’s son.

It’s fascinating to find ourselves part of a new tradition of Jesus followers. So it’s a Vineyard church, which means they take the Holy Spirit pretty seriously. If you aren’t familiar with Christianity, it’s essentially a greater expectation for God to be at work, a great interest in finding God’s leading.

Coming down to brass tacks, my job will be a bit different than my role at City Church. With more volunteers and a history of lots of volunteer leadership, I’ll be doing far more collaborating and much less spearheading. At the same time, there is a bigger group of students, so I’ll be doing more guiding than building. Finally, the roles I’ll be taking on apart from student ministry will feel new and I think I’ll be challenged in good ways.

We are excited to be staying in the Bay Area; this is what we wanted, and I am pleased to see things unfolding as they are. There are plenty of new challenges, of course. The median income in Palo Alto is $127K [keeping all things in perspective, nearby Atherton’s median income is several times that]. We will be farther from Kaile’s graduate school. Though we found a good deal on a place to live [again, if it works out!], it’s still about 11% more per month.

And yet, we choose to trust that God is at work, bringing us forward in the right paths, walking with us through the ups and downs. Funny, I received this study book on the New Testament book of James right after I was laid off, and it emphasized the key text of the book, verses 2-4 of chapter 1, encouraging readers to commit these words to memory:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Weird, right? So was God the one who laid me off, testing me to see if I was faithful enough? If you read on, you’ll learn that the text emphasizes how trials teach us lessons; yet God isn’t some kind of weird cosmic puppet-master, tugging the strings of human existence and testing us. Instead, God walks with us through trials, challenges, temptations. God’s plan is not around pain, and God’s goal isn’t avoiding loss or grief.

James emphasizes in verse 17 how God gives good gifts:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Simply, when good things happen, we credit God.

When bad things happen, we search for God’s leading and healing.

And in all things, we give thanks. This is really hard for me-I’m the first to admit it. Yes, we have total permission to be frustrated about things, to be mad, to doubt, to get upset with God even [a great place to go for this is the Psalms!]. And yet, we are invited to trust, enjoined to search for the Spirit of God which is at work in us.

Today I’m on the other side of the crazy, floating feeling I had after being laid off; I’ve got a job to do and connections to make. Tomorrow holds, well, who knows what. I can’t be in control of that or worry about it, for I am alive right now.

And today, I say thank you to the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

***

 

I Lost My Job [But Not My Calling]

A number of months ago, I reflected on the intricate steps that led to my family’s first cross-country move. At that time, I was incredibly thankful, encouraged that while I had connected with a strong, mission-oriented church in San Francisco, Kaile was accepted at a very selective master’s program in clinical counseling. She would study and learn, I would lead and shepherd students, and we would together collaborate in raising our two tiny boys, Silas and Maelin. For a year, this is exactly what we did. We slowly learned about our new child, our new church, our new community, our new city; and having just passed our one-year anniversary of living in San Francisco [April 23rd], we both celebrate God’s goodness and God’s presence with us at every step of the journey. 

On Monday, May 8th, I learned that my job will not continue into the Fall. I am laid off. It was hard news, overwhelming news, news that I will surely still be processing for months to come. City Church is restructuring its staff roles, and after some serious discernment, my former pastoral role is becoming a part-time position. With the expenses of a family living in a major urban center, a part-time position simply doesn’t provide enough income to exist-or subsist.    

As I sat face-to-face hearing the bad news from Fred Harrell, the pastor who planted City Church in 1997 and who presently guides the community as its senior leader, I was shocked. But it wasn’t the news about my role as a youth pastor that shocked me, as difficult as this was to hear. Instead, I was shocked-surprised and taken in with a deep sense of peace that permeated my soul, my mind, even my body. The conversation was tangibly gracious; my heart rate was no quicker; my palms were dry; my words were slow and measured-and equally gracious as Fred’s, I hope. 

During our conversation, this moment that neither of us discovered to be easy or natural, I was pervaded by the same sense of peace that I sensed God giving me on October 15th, 2015 [read that story here if you haven’t]. Then, it was a 3am divine intervention, a wakeup call from God that quelled my burning anxieties that stemmed from facing an unknown future. This past Monday, it was a morning conversation with a trusted leader and coworker which featured some very tough news. But the same peace pervaded me, a peace that comes from God’s Spirit. I even mentioned this peace to Fred. I told him I was surprised by it, perplexed but thankful for the sense of centeredness that I was experiencing. 

Going forward, the same realities exist: when severance pay ends, I need new employment, and I don’t want to just do the next thing in front of me, to simply find something that works. Instead, I want to serve God using the very best of my abilities. During the challenge of transition, we need stability and support, and as we look forward, we require equal parts wisdom, courage, and perseverance. I’ve never been let go from a job before, and it’s a new feeling. Though my situation stemmed from budget changes and restructuring, it’s still difficult for me to sit with the reality of the leadership’s conclusion. 

IMG_2785

Sunday night I drove with my family to the home where our community group meets. After only a few minutes, the conversation turned to our situation. One of our church’s leaders was there, and she was closely involved with the difficult decisions that City Church has been forced to make over the past few months. Listening happened that night, and some really honest sharing of our burden. Hard as it is, I was reminded that evening how everyone in our group has challenges. One family is looking for more stable employment; another has a child with very pressing medical needs; yet another is recognizing the nuances of parenting are more difficult than they had imagined.

During our time with our community group, reflected on Psalm 31, especially the first five verses:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God. 

After reflecting on this Scripture, our group prayed for us. Hands were laid on; the scene reminded me of what I picture of the early church’s meetings in Asia minor. These people know us, at least as much as they are able to know us, and they are praying for us still.

All of this reminds me of how God has always been faithful to us, and we trust that this will continue to be the case as we plunge into whatever is next for our family and our livelihood. I say this to be true not as one who has found a new and meaningful job, as one a weary traveler wading through the muddy waters of unknowing.

During our transition, the same challenges that existed for us before the loss of my job continue in the present. Our two tiny boys are as energetic as ever, with just as many needs. They are sensing our stress, and we can see how it is affecting them. It hurts Kaile and me to know that the stresses that we are doing our best to hide from Maelin and Silas are having their effects on our infant and toddler.

Through these challenges, we are leaning into God’s direction for our life journey together. My days have turned to searching for employment, awaiting answers to email inquiries, and grooming my LinkedIn profile. Instead of commuting on my bike to an office, I work from my home office, investing the time I used to spend fostering direction for a ministry into something new: seeking a new place to serve. Since we have grown so deeply attached to our church community, this is especially difficult; it is not only my place of employment, it’s our people

As we walk on, our prayers are just as much with City Church as we perceive their prayers are with us. I lost my job, not my long-term call to pastoral ministry. And now, the elders and pastors are doing their very best to continue in the mission they sense God has directed them into, and I respect them immensely, even though things didn’t go my way. If I could resume my former work, I’d do it in a heartbeat. And yet, this is not how the story is unfolding, and it is time to allow space for the community to proceed in the next chapter.

When it’s hard and when it’s easy, we are resolved to take refuge in God, just like the Psalm says.

After all, we’ve been here all along. 

***

Awkward Playground Confrontations: Learning to Share.

If you have ever been to a playground where a significant number of toddlers are present, you’ll understand the sheer volume of noise, snacks, snotty noses, and toys. 30 toddlers and kindergarteners sharing 3000 square feet makes for a lovely scene.

Such was the scene today at Julius Kahn playground here in San Francisco. It’s in the Presidio, a lovely former military encampment in the far turned enormous park. And Julius Kahn playground sits directly across the street from gleaming modern and historic properties each worth millions. And the sweeping view of standing eucalyptus and fir groves next to hilly fields keeps parents inspired and happy as they chase their tinies and mind their boo boos.

It was my first time, today, and I was pleased to watch Silas, our two year old, play as Kaile spent some time with friends playing tennis. I am terrible at tennis, you see. I didn’t get a picture of the scene at Julius Kahn, but here’s a little picture from another park of the star/villain of today’s story.

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Silas had been playing with some other toddlers in the dirt as I watched from a little way off. I was standing in the shade to keep the hot sun off Maelin’s head. Maelin is our almost-six month old. He was struggling and crying, so I was attempting to assuage his hiccup difficulties while keeping an eye on his older brother.

Suddenly a tall man appeared. “Excuse me, could you tell your son to give my son his toy back? He snatched it away from my son, and I can’t believe my son was so gracious about it, but he needs his toy back,” he asked/instructed me. He was a decade older, easily, and much taller than me. “Uh oh,” I managed, hoping he heard me over the crying infant on my chest.

I came over and instructed Silas to return the toy. Maelin’s screams forced me to pause my admonishment, and I planned to redouble my efforts in helping this gentleman in his crusade to heroically rescue his son from Silas’s plundering. To be fair to Silas, it was an awesome toy. I mean, I would play with this toy, pictured below. And I’m almost thirty.

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Soon, Maelin was quiet. But Silas still had the toy, this deliciously intricate yellow crane truck. I looked up and saw the man glaring down at Silas, who appeared to be utilizing the crane truck for extensive sand mining operations. His son had started playing with the group of boys nearby who had access to a small fleet of vehicles. They also appeared to be in the sand mining business from what I could make out.

And then it happened.

The man swooped in and wrenched the toy from Silas’s hand. Ok ok, I’m overstating it a little, but he took the crane truck quite swiftly and returned it to his son, who may or may not have leveraged it for his sand mining operations.

Silas looked up at the man, perplexed. But he wasn’t as perplexed as me. I was aghast. Anytime parents bring their toddlers’ toys to a playground, they must expect either to share or to ward off a host of interested persons under three feet tall. These interested persons are all learning what it means to share, to learn the latent toxicity of the term “mine.”

I stopped myself from confronting the man, pausing to reflect briefly on my motives and to assess possible positive outcomes. Nothing good seemed likely to come from the conversation that I imagine would have gone something like this:

Ben: “Man, did you really just rip that toy out of my son’s hand?”

Guy: “Man, did you really just let your toddler steal my son’s toy?”

Ben: “He’s two years old, and I’m working on getting him to ask before using other people’s stuff.”

Guy: “He ought to know better.”

Ben: “Maybe your son could try sharing.”

Guy: “It’s his toy!”

Ben: “…”

I couldn’t get past that hypothetical dialogue in my head, so I observed the situation as it stood, allowing my anger to fade into sadness.

It was painful to watch Silas hang his head and wander off to another group of more accepting kids who let him load their little dump trucks with sand. He wasn’t wanted; he was cast out. In the car ride home, he mentioned it: “crane not mine,” he fumbled in his toddler fashion. Of all the events of the day, he remembered that one in particular; he remembered the feeling of having messed up and being very firmly scolded for it-and from a man much older than his own dad. Taller too. And, I’m guessing, wealthier, but who knows, can’t judge by the Patagonia shirt.

Sure, go ahead, hit me with that capitalist jargon from John Locke about the foundations of Western civilization and the right to private property. That’s great. But call me crazy, I want Silas and Maelin to share. Goodness, I want to get better at sharing my own resources. Our playground policy is essentially that Silas must share any toys he takes; and I have to at least hope that other kids-and parents!-to be gracious with the toys Silas wants to use. Only one other time ever have I seen such closed fistedness from another parent [and it was much milder].

If it’s too difficult to share a crane truck, I fancy it’ll be hard to share school snacks too in a couple years, or compare study notes in ten. It’ll be hard to be generous with time and money when he’s 40. It might be hard, even, to be generous with complements.

I’m taking this to the extreme because I have this belief that if we coach our kids well during the early years, the difficult lessons will soak into their little souls.

There’s a biblical Proverb that distills the concept:

Teach a child to choose the right path, and when he is older, he will remain upon it. Proverbs 22:6

I actually put serious faith into this idea. And I do it somewhat selfishly, for I do not want to live in a world where kids never learn to share. Too many of the problems in our country seem to stem from an inability to share. Like, I mean, immigration, health care, jobs, little things like that.

For now, I’m forced to just remind Silas to ask before he borrows toys and still hope for a little grace when he doesn’t. I can hope other parents coach their kids to share even when it might feel like the end of the world, but I can’t make them. And occasionally, I might have to swallow the legion counterarguments raging in my soul and just watch as my son has a truck taken from him by a tall, upper middle class white man who refuses to coach his son to share.

If you read my blog ever, you might have noticed that I rarely “get it right.” Most of the time I find myself writing about blunders I’ve made, failures and mistakes that I learn from. If there was a blunder on my part, it was in failing to coach Silas strongly enough in making sure to ask and say please before using another person’s toy.

But I’m not backing down on the other aspects of today’s events. I will continue to insist that Silas shares toys that he brings to the playground. Because, selfishly, I want Silas and all the other toddlers to grow up having learned to share. I really don’t think parents like the gentleman today need to reinforce their child’s concept of “mine.”

Selfishness comes pretty naturally to most of us, in my experience.

But so can selflessness. It feels good to give away your time without the expectation of something in return, to let go of material resources so someone else might flourish. Imagine a world where this genuinely was the norm, and I imagine it’s a place where you’d like to live.

Me too.

Where was God?

Everyone asks the question at some point:

Where was God when…

…my job was taken from me? …I was bullied in junior high? …when I…

The question is asked all the time. And it’s a perfectly decent question to ask. Even the Bible, the prime written testament to God, is packed with people bothering God about all kinds of things, sometimes getting an answer, sometimes not at all [see Hebrews 11].

I found myself asking this question the other night. After our older son, Silas, came home from a lice-infested nursery, we wanted to make sure he [and we!] wouldn’t unwittingly invite the little creatures into our home.

With my wife’s encouragement, I bathed him and applied the special lice medication I found at the drugstore and put him down to sleep with no issues. Until an hour later, that is, when he woke up crying out in pain. We know our son’s cries-that’s the mysterious ability of the parent. We can tell if our toddler is throwing a fit or throwing a lifeline for help.

The scenario we encountered was the latter: Silas desperately needed us. A tiny amount of the lice medicine had found its way into his eye and was now causing some significant irritation, far too much for a 20 month old to handle. We gave him medicine first. He slept for another hour after some angry tears. After another couple of rounds with cuddling, gentle words, and even a 2am bath, nothing was helping. He was enraged-and now he was struggling to open his left eye.

Kaile made it clear that she wanted me to go to the emergency room with him. I resisted for a moment, wondering if we had an alternative. Looking again, I decided it was the next thing to do. It was 3am. I was already exhausted [yeah, Silas has a new baby brother, so…]. Now I was hopping into an Uber car and making my way to the ER for Silas’s first visit. 

Thankfully, things went as well as they could have gone.

But the night was hellacious. I’ll be feeling the effects for a while, to be sure. After I got home from the ER, Kaile and I prayed for peace and endurance, for sleep and for health.

Now our situation is certainly not so terrible. Lots of parents have gone through worse experiences than this, more consistently difficult issues than we, more overwhelming pain or inconceivable loss. I know our little troubles are minuscule in the bigger scheme of things. In the future, we may face more difficult realities-who knows how life will evolve. And again, this particular situation was my fault anyway.

But however good or bad our situation, we end up asking,

“where was God?”

Let me interject a concept from Scripture. The Old Testament contains a seldom-preached book called Judges that depicts the very earliest years of the Israelite people. If you read carefully, you’ll notice a pattern in Judges, a cycle:

  1. Israel serves God
  2. Israel gets distracted from God and worships other gods
  3. Israel is enslaved
  4. Israel cries out to God
  5. God raises a judge [leader who spiritually and physically helps the people]
  6. God delivers Israel

The cycle, while not occurring at every instance in this precise order, reveals how when good things are happening, people depart from God.

It’s not hard for me to see this on the daily. Who needs God when your 401[K] is off the charts, your business is growing, when you just got a powerful new job, when your car is fast, when everyone oohs and ahhs when they see your Viking range and quartz countertops?

While God can be so close and so needed during our difficulty, God can turn into a trite joke with the rise of a career or the fortunes of a business.

Regina Spektor said it well in her song Laughing With:

No one laughs at God
When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God
When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet

God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

The song concludes with the concept that we’re actually laughing with God. Interesting concept, lots of great thoughts in this piece of art. Go look that song up and have a listen. It’s worth three minutes.

Anyway, you get the point.

We all want God at our beck and call-when we need something, when things aren’t going as well. We want God to fix the issue of the job we lost. Right now I’d like someone to lease our apartment once we move so I don’t have to pay $2600/month for a place I don’t occupy. Makes me think about a good image for understanding God-a concept I’ve written about before.

God is like a parent.

We love our parents at Christmas, when they buy us ice cream, when they give us a set of keys to our own car. But when dad makes us do homework or clean the yard? Forward-thinking kids would call Child Protective Services! Mom wants us to go to church!? What about my freedom of choice? I’m 15 years old, for goodness sake? Clean the dishes, sure, but I’ll need to see an uptick in my allowance for the week.

We treat God the same way. When tough stuff happens, God’s a jerk. Conversely, when things are going well, we plain don’t notice God. I guess God’s a little different than us parents in this-at least we [hopefully!] notice when parents do good things for us. This happened for the ancient people of Israel, and it happens in real life. Silly as it is, there aren’t that many practicing atheists in foxholes. Agnostics? Well, sure, why not.

But pain often reminds us of the loss or displacement of something formerly good. The investment account that tanked during a bad quarter used to pay steady dividends. The painful divorce followed years of marriage that contained some meaningful conversations, maybe a couple delightful children. The cancer metastasized ravenously within a body that had flourished for decades.

People find their way back to church after a divorce, after the loss of a child, after news of cancer, after financial woes rise to undeniable levels. I think part of the reason people come back because God is whispering to our souls how much we’re loved, how much we’re missed, how much is waiting for us. A wise person told me the sunrise comes every morning whether we get up to see it or not. Is this not true with our connection to God? Does not God still exist whether or not we pray, whether or not we fail to believe that he is there?

As I think over the situation with our son the other night, I picture God caring for me in the same way I cared for my son as he suffered. Again, the analogy doesn’t quite work because I’m not God and I’m far from perfect. After all, I could have worked harder on keeping the suds out of his eyes-it really was my bad.

But I hope I continue to prove my love for Silas as I continue to care for him in good times and bad. I hope to model, even if it’s in an imperfect fashion, the constant love of God. Sure, I’ll fail him, but I still hope I can offer the tiniest glimpse of forgiveness so he can turn and thank God for his life and the blessings that surround him.

It was a powerful moment for me when Silas woke up with closed eyes. He needed my hand to get around our little apartment. Without sight, Silas was forced to trust me to give him the things he needs. As his eyes stayed shut, I fed him his whole lunch. What he doesn’t know yet is that his daddy is the same way. I’ve got to hold God’s hand, whether I’m making a life choice or just trying to get better at parenting [and keeping lice out of my house!]. I’ve got to trust God with things that are beyond my control, things that I can’t see.

I would be devastated if Silas lost his vision permanently, and I regret getting soap in his eye. But, amidst the chaos, I treasured the moments when he had to put his faith in me to the extent that I fed him lunch. Thankfully he is recovering, resilient little rascal that he is.

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Maybe, moving forward, I’ll be shocked at how few bad things happen in my life and in my community and how much goodness exists in our crazy world.

Maybe, during seasons when it’s easiest to forget God and blame him for problems and difficulties, I’ll turn and say a genuine thank you to Jesus, even as he prays for the world and even for me.

Maybe, as I continue this path-my own spiritual journey-I’ll get better at asking the “where was God” question during good times and hard times, and learn that he’s holding my hand the whole time, feeding me body and soul.

 

Storytime: Maelin Hosea, Our Second Son

Yesterday began just as the four weeks that have preceded it: Kaile felt heavy, tired, worn and I felt a bit tired but also overly ready to welcome a new life into our family.

I brought Kaile a bowl of cereal after Silas woke up [we haven’t set an alarm clock in over a year]. After she finished, she headed to the bathroom. Soon, I heard a sound I have heard so often over the past month: low groans.

The moaning soon blossomed into early labor. Quite similar to our first birth experience with Silas, over several weeks Kaile’s cervix had slowly dilated and effaced to four, five, then six centimeters. But with Maelin, the process took longer, and Maelin didn’t appear to want to leave the womb. A week prior, we had been at the birth center one evening for a full four hours, only to return home tired and disappointed.

Earlier this week on Tuesday, we had said our goodbyes to my parents who had been in town since September 17th. It hurt to see them leave, especially since we had such a long window of time with them-ten days during which we would have loved to celebrate the birth with their support. We had hoped their trip would be rewarded with the experience of meeting their third grandchild. But their time came to leave, and Silas came back home with us; we both wondered again if the baby would ever come. We now had the responsibility of caring once again for our toddler as the infant inside continued to wait, which didn’t exactly make daily life easier.

Back to the morning groans.

As Kaile continued labor, it became apparent that this was no false labor; this was as real as the moment twenty months prior when Silas was ready to enter the world. I called Mattea, our doula, then Julie, the on-call midwife at San Francisco Birth Center.

Earlier in the morning our friend Taryn had texted Kaile from down the street asking if we needed anything from the market.

Kaile texted to tell her were all set.

Not less than 30 minutes later, I called back asking if she could take Silas-we were having the baby!

The timing was no less than perfect. As it turned out, the window of time Kaile went into labor was in the middle of one of the few breaks Taryn has from her three children every week.

With Mattea, our doula, on the way, I raced downstairs to meet Taryn and explain a few details regarding care for Silas. She gracefully took him with her, and I fiendishly made my way back up to our fifteenth floor abode. Kaile was now retching in pain: contractions were coming too consistently to track. Kaile told me she was feeling the urge to push. I told her to breathe and, well, we breathed [heavily!].

I glanced around the apartment, picturing what it might be like to try to catch a baby there. Would the midwives come to us if the baby couldn’t wait? I called Mattea again to see if she could come *a little sooner*.

Mattea made some minor adjustments to her SUV’s velocity and arrived several minutes later.

Once again, the race was on, but at least now we were together.

The 20 minute ride down Mission Street, over to Franklin, then west on Geary felt more like 20 hours. We circumnavigated some a couple great hills in the city, and this challenged Kaile’s ability to remain centered, but we made it-and just in time. We made our way painstakingly out of the car and up to the third floor.

We had been hoping for a water birth, but since we were unsure of the timing for the baby, we hedged our bets and kept low expectations.

Nevertheless, Julie, the midwife, seemed to read our thoughts. She filled the large bathtub with warm water. Thankfully it had a high volume nozzle. Soon, I was in my bathing suit and Kaile was moving from transition-the final step in labor-into the first stages of delivery. In other words, our stressful moments in the car and our hilly trip to the birth center had contained much more of the labor process than we had imagined. And yet, she was doing perfectly, and her body was tracking right along.

I gave some pressure on her hips during the approximately 12 contractions she experienced at the birth center, and scratched her back in-between.

Before either of us expected it, Julie was preparing us for the inevitable. I subtly asked Mattea if there was a mirror. Since I was behind Kaile, it was impossible to see Maelin from my angle. Later I discovered Kaile wasn’t thrilled about the idea-but she was quick to forgive.

Moments later, I watched as a tiny head appeared. Even through two feet of water I could clearly tell our child had a full head of hair. Julie calmly told Kaile, “Okay, now a couple more big pushes; push your baby out!” That was the first time Julie had said anything about pushing-Kaile’s uterus had been working overtime for over two hours [or, more accurately, 10 months!], and Kaile had trusted her body to carry the process toward completion.

So that’s what she did-she did her first strong push. Joining her cognitive and physical strength with her body’s natural effort, progress became quite apparent. Julie’s coaching and Mattea’s words of encouragement were a soothing balm as Kaile continued her work.

She had been leaning forward on the tub, but Julie suggest she lean back on me for the final moments. She shifted, and as she leaned back, I held her legs out and toward me, allowing space and openness for baby to proceed.

Soon, I could see the whole head-and of course that was the hardest part. Seconds later the shoulders and abdomen followed, and before I realized what had happened, our infant, stubborn as he had been, rushed out into the warm water. Julie carefully lifted Maelin up and placed him on Kaile’s chest. A soft cry followed: he had exited the womb and officially entered our family.   

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A slightly awkward moment followed.

Up to this point, Kaile and I still didn’t know if our Maelin was a boy or girl. The only moving piece was the middle name. Had we become parents of a girl, the middle name would have been Junia. As much as I enjoyed taking in the moment, my curiosity was piqued: I had to know!

Carefully, I lifted up our still-purple child, and without as much as a trace of a doubt, I beheld a boy child. Silas now had a younger brother, separated by only 20 months [to the day!].

Kaile and I are both still processing all of the past few weeks [and year as well!], but here is a deep spiritual reality that I’ve gleaned from the experience. In John 16, Jesus explains to his followers that he would be leaving. They’re confused, as they often are, and Jesus unpacks what he means, likening his coming departure from earth to the experience of a woman in labor: 

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

It’s curious how Jesus uses the gritty events of life to speak to spiritual truths. And yet, though Jesus departed, he unleashed the Holy Spirit to be even closer than he would have ever been. It’s curious too how the Son of God entered human existence not through a magical appearance, but through Mary’s womb. Why the risk on God’s part? I don’t have answer for that, but welcoming Maelin Hosea into our lives reminds me how vulnerable it is to be an infant. It’s certainly curious that God chose to get involved with humankind in the same intimate fashion.

Our hearts had been longing for Maelin to join our family, and indeed he has finally come to us. And as we celebrate his presence in our lives, we are reminded that he is a gift from God, a blessing and a sign of the love God has for all people: big and small, old and young.