Playing the Fool

Is there a way to love always?
Living in enemy hallways
Don’t know my foes from my friends and
Don’t know my friends anymore

Power has several prizes
Handcuffs can come in all sizes
Love has a million disguises
But winning is simply not one

Jon Guerra, “Citizens”

On this day three years ago, I began my first and only position as the senior pastor of a church. That it was April Fool’s Day bore no meaningful significance in my mind. It was merely a coincidence, a mildly funny fact to chuckle at and quickly dismiss. The pastoral call is a powerful and weighty experience – a life-altering confrontation with the prophetic and mysterious will of God. I had directly wrestled with this call for the better part of a year. Certainly, the day I became a senior pastor was far more noteworthy than just the place it happened to fall on a secular calendar. There was no time for frivolous teasing, half-baked pranks, or dumb jokes. This was serious business, wasn’t it?

Less than eighteen months later, I resigned my post. And, in my grief, I could think only one thing: Who was the fool now?

The circumstances of my resignation are a story for another day. Suffice it to say, over the course of those tumultuous eighteen months, I was ridden hard and put away wet, wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous congregants unable to reconcile their specific, personal preferences for the church with my particular styles of teaching and leadership. Rather than seek common ground, they chose instead to embellish our differences. Rather than meet with me face-to-face, most preferred to whisper behind my back.

The thing I found most tragic, though, was that these stubborn and uncooperative congregants believed – and likely still believe – that they did the right thing, the smart thing. That it was up to their unhappy few to protect the church. As they saw it, the wise thing to do was drive out the one threatening to disrupt their status quo. To simply stand by and allow me to continue in leadership would be the height of foolishness. This was serious business.

The Butt of the Joke

After I capitulated and submitted my resignation, I felt very much the fool. Despite fifteen previous years of work as an associate pastor, I nonetheless stepped into the new position naive, unguarded, and over-trusting. It was foolish to believe the God who had guided me to this post would automatically spare me from any snares or pits that lay ahead, that he would perfectly shield me from the enemies that lay in wait just around the bend. It was foolish to believe my giftedness as a teacher of Scripture was enough to endear me to all, to evoke appreciation and loyalty. And it was foolish not to recognize that congregational unity was something for which we must fight daily, something that is constantly under assault from without and within.

April Fool’s Day, it turns out, was the perfect day for me to begin a work that would ultimately drive me from ministry altogether. I was a fool not to perceive its significance.

For a long time, this sense of foolishness was my shame. I blamed myself for every impasse, every bit of tension, every misunderstanding. I theorized that a more faithful and capable minister would have ascended and soared where I crashed and burned. I considered every cruel and tactless insult that had been hurled at me, trying each one on like a man trying on sport coats in a department store. I considered myself in the mirror and thought, Perhaps my critics are right. Perhaps I am every bit the failure and false teacher they believe me to be. Eventually, I reached the point in which I was questioning my own effectiveness as a minister, concluding to friends and family that God no longer had any use for my limited and flawed pastoral abilities.

Shame is a hell of a thing. Not only do you learn to see yourself as, simultaneously, the sitting duck, the class weakling, the whipping boy, the scapegoat, and the butt of every vindictive joke, but you also come to believe those classifications are fully deserved.

The Foolishness of God

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthian church. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).

After everything fell apart, I felt incredibly foolish. And yet, the more time I spent lamenting my lack of success in ministry, the more I came to see how often God’s Word equates faithfulness not with success, but with failure. From the world’s perspective, to trust in the will of God is to play the fool. When we walk with the Savior through the dumpster fires of our earthbound, devotional pursuits, we begin to grasp the truth that, indeed, the only one’s capable of inheriting this love-starved world are the meek. It is not greater fortune that awaits those who are truly about the Lord’s business, but greater struggle. More often than not, you find yourself alone, bereft of friends and confidants, enveloped by conflict rather than validation. Those who earnestly follow the Spirit’s leading eventually find themselves in the shadows of Gethsemane.

“Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you,” writes St. John (1 Jn. 3:13), no doubt recalling the Savior’s own prophetic assurance made to him: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12).

Any careful students of Scripture know this to be true. We like to think more visitors and new buildings and growing programs are proof of the Lord’s blessing. But his Word makes no such assurances. On the contrary, Jesus insists that to follow him is to carry a cross. It is to lay down your life, to relinquish your reputation, to subject yourself to even the most outlandish of accusations, the most grievous of insinuations. Read on and you find that the careers of those who pledged their allegiance to him were marked as much by contention, toil, and peril as by anything our modern world would recognize as “success.”

No Time for Preference

Sadly, you and I live in a time and place in which pastors can become bestselling authors, TV personalities, Instagram influencers, CEOs of globally relevant organizations, or, at the very least, distinguished personages within whatever amount of turf they’ve claimed for themselves. What an exceedingly strange and off-putting view this must be to the saints of old. Looking down on us from on high must be akin to watching a Real Housewives marathon. Again and again, they behold cultural compromise going before us like a banner. Too often, we are Pig Pen reeking of filth, drifting day to day in a cloud of materialistic decadence, shameful perversion, and idolatrous politics.

The lives of the apostles were consumed by trials we can hardly fathom; these blue-collar commoners scraped and scrounged and labored to fan the flame of a fledgling faith. They gave everything to love and to teach love, to endure and call others to endure. What is more, they were always quick to tear out the fast-sprouting weeds of complacency and luxury, admonishing the corrupting influences of wealth, class, and status, and rebuking those who salivated over idols of pleasure, comfort, and convenience.

Look at us now. Today, our houses of worship are themselves worshipped for their opulence and state-of-the-art amenities. Our sermons are vengeful tantrums about groups we hate and self-righteous bellyachings about unfair assaults on our “God-given” rights!

“What rights?” St. Paul asks from between the lines of his letters. “Who has deceived you to believe you deserve anything? What lies have been fed you to think the Church is owed anything but the daily sacrifice of your own life?”

To be a follower of Christ is to waive every claim you have to individual liberty. Sure, Paul leaned on his Roman citizenship, but only so that he might bear witness to the unbridled gospel of Christ from the highest platform possible. The truth is that the gospel – the real gospel – has no time for your preferences. It has no place for your comfort. And despite what some Fox News fabulists may insist, it bears no partiality to your politics. Instead, it calls all of us to join hands beneath one banner and one banner only: the once and future reign of King Jesus.

If you lean on your own understanding and claim your way of seeing or doing things is the only way to serve the King, you’re not a good soldier for Christ. You’re a deserter. You’ve traded a cheap facsimile of church for the true Church.

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” writes Paul, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:22-25).

Amen. May we cease wanting the new life we’ve been given to be normal. May we stop expecting that the work to which we’ve been called can be comfortable. We are not normal, and this was never meant to be easy. May we accept this, and may we gladly play the fool. I’ve decided that’s OK with me. After all, it is to foolishness that we have been called, and from it we find true significance.

The Carolers

A Short Story

Mitchell could hear the bells down the street. He sat on the white sofa with a drink in his hand, staring at the upholstered arm and the damp ring left by the condensation on the glass. A plate of half-eaten pie rested on the coffee table in front of him, the whipped cream beginning to pool and turn the crust soggy. His tie was loosened, the top two buttons of his dress shirt undone. Thin black dress socks did little to warm his feet. He considered switching on the gas fireplace, but doing so required going down to the basement – still full of moving boxes – and opening the gas valve. He didn’t like going down there if he didn’t have to, didn’t like looking upon the mess. Instead, he sipped his drink while the index finger of his free hand traced the wet circle on the sofa’s arm, and outside the church bells continued ringing.

The television was muted. Eerily silent Claymation figures twitched and wobbled through a winter wonderland. Mitchell recognized it as one of the holiday specials he watched as a child, but he couldn’t remember its title. He craned his neck to look through the window behind him. No snow yet. Earlier in the day, the weather app on his phone had indicated a fifty percent chance of flurries. Wouldn’t that be something? Mitchell had thought to himself. Then he had said the same out loud to Lucy as they drove back to his house. “Wouldn’t that be something, honey? A white Christmas.” But Lucy only rolled her eyes away from him and gazed wearily out the passenger window of the car.

Mitchell continued undaunted. “I remember it happened when I was a kid. Not sure what age I was. Couple years older than you, I think. Maybe it was ’89 or ’90. Not a lot of snow back then, either, but every once in a while. That Christmas, we got some. A white Christmas! It was…” He considered the image for a moment. The memory felt like an item in an antique store, dusty and long-ago disregarded, but perhaps still useful. “Perfect,” he concluded.

“Mm hmm” was Lucy’s response.

Mitchell grinned, then began to intone the first lines of the song in his best Bing Crosby. Lucy didn’t look at him, but he thought maybe through the dark strands of hair curtaining her face he saw the corner of her mouth lift. He kept going, but after “sleigh bells in the snow” he realized he couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics. Something about Christmas cards, he thought, but, sure enough, he butchered it, failing to find the rhyme.

“Dad!” Lucy snapped. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Just stop.”

Looking out on the cul-de-sac from where he now slouched on the sofa, with a vague sense of disappointment Mitchell realized his surroundings didn’t rise to the level of Bing Crosby’s pastoral blessing. It was pretty, of course, but nothing even close to glistening treetops and snowy lanes. The yards were clear, save for the inflatable figures positioned on his neighbor’s front lawn. The big house across the cul-de-sac had spelled out “Merry & Bright” in white holiday lights on the small hill at the edge of their property. All the front windows of the houses were adorned with green wreaths and big red bows, including Mitchell’s house. Only a couple days after moving in, he’d been irked to learn this was a tradition by way of a handwritten note in his mailbox. It wasn’t an HOA thing, the note informed him. Just a pact between everyone on this particular street. By then, however, the retail websites showed “out of stock,” and all the home goods and home improvement stores were mostly picked clean. He’d had to drive to four different places, a couple on the other side of town, just to find enough similar-looking wreaths to cover his windows. All this had left a salty taste in his mouth. All the same, though, he had figured that while he was at it he should probably pick out a tree. It seemed everyone else’s house had one sparkling in their front picture windows. He also grabbed a couple strings of whatever color of lights were left.

In spite of his irritation, the more items Mitchell collected, the stronger the urge came to indulge a sense of holiday nostalgia. He was getting into it, he couldn’t deny. It felt awkward at first, after such a harrowing year, to take pleasure in something so seemingly jejune. But as he drove home from the last store, the backseat of his Audi crammed with decorations and a boxed, six-foot artificial tree, he found himself humming the schmaltzy Christmas Muzak that had trickled from the stores’ speakers. After a few minutes of this, he searched for a holiday station on the satellite radio, hoping to hear the classic, syrupy strains of Burl Ives or Andy Williams. He found, to his disappointment, that the station’s programming was a more bombastic mix of Mariah Carey, The Jonas Brothers, and someone named Ne-Yo. He switched it off, but, still reveling in sentimentality, he tapped his smartphone. The ringing came through the car’s speaker system. Then Marnie picked up.

“Hello, Mitchell.”

“Hey, um…” he started, then found he needed a few seconds to translate his impulsive thought to actual words.

“What do you need?” Her voice was wary and tightly wound.

“I was just thinking– maybe, I dunno, just about what you mentioned back in October– you know, at the arbitrator’s office, you’d said maybe, I mean, if she wanted to–” He took a deep breath and decided to just pull the trigger. “Maybe Lucy could spend this Christmas with me?”

Anxious hesitation on the other end. Then Marnie said, “Are you even all the way moved in?” Her words were thickly coated in incredulity.

“Yeah, no,” Mitchell replied. “I mean, yeah, totally. I’m, you know, all unpacked. Good to go.”

“Really? It’s not just a forest of moving boxes and dry-cleaning you haven’t put away?”

Mitchell felt heat in his ears. He ground his molars, but kept his voice in check. “No, Marn. The boxes are all unpacked. I’ve got her room all ready, too. Even got a Christmas tree.”

“You’re kidding. When did you have time to do all that?”

Mitchell passed on several snide remarks before replying. “Nights and weekends. I just wanted to get settled, that’s all.”

There was a long, dithering sigh on the other end of the line. Mitchell faintly heard another voice in the background, and Marnie’s strained words – likely the receiver was momentarily covered. Then she was back. “Well, I’m not sure. She’s been an absolute pill lately. She completely ignores Mark’s daughters, and she’s refusing to come with us to his parents up in Durham. It’s an annual thing, but obviously this would be our first time. I’m embarrassed to bring her, frankly, and expose his family to whatever horrible phase this is.” She sighed again, and Mitchell could almost hear the conflict clattering in her mind. “This holiday’s going to be difficult enough. I don’t know… Everything’s so different. She’s different.”

The heat drained from Mitchell’s face. He unclenched his jaw. “Marion,” he said softly. “It’s fine. It’ll be fine. Let me.”

Immediately after the call ended, Mitchell veered into the left lane, pulled a u-turn, and screeched into the parking lot of a Bed, Bath, & Beyond. He wasn’t sure if there was room in the Audi for curtains, sheets, pillows, a comforter, and whatever else Lucy’s room still needed, but he was determined to make things fit.

The last chime of the church bells faded into the night. Mitchell took another sip of his drink and then set it down next to the half-eaten gingerbread pie on the coffee table. He had been exceedingly impressed with himself for making the dessert, excited to tell Lucy that the recipe was her great-grandmother’s, that his mother had taught him how to make it and he’d grown up eating it every Christmas (until Marnie’s lactose intolerance forced it off their holiday menus). But Lucy hadn’t touched her slice. When he tried to cajole her – “C’mon, you hardly ate any dinner” – she had begrudgingly severed a minuscule bit of the tip and slipped it between her lips with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old eating lima beans. Then she had asked to be excused.

Mitchell stood up from the couch and rounded the coffee table to the tree. His sock feet were unsteady on the slick wooden floor. He still needed to purchase a few rugs for the place. The tree was the pre-lit kind with fake snow on the tips of the branches, some kind of solvent stuff. In setting it up, Mitchell had become aware of the fact that Marnie still possessed all the ornament boxes, including the ones he’d inherited from his parents. He thought about calling her back or even stopping by Mark’s house to pick them up, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He’d told her the tree was already set up. Calling her back would raise suspicion, and he refused to give her fresh reasons to doubt him.

He bent down and checked the wrapped presents at the foot of the tree. There were only three – a couple things for Lucy he’d found on Amazon, and, so he had something to open as well, the gift his sales team had given him last week. A small, square box, just the right size and weight to be a coffee mug. Mitchell was almost certain that inside there would be a “We Appreciate You” note and a gift card to a Brazilian steakhouse or something for which they all obligatorily pitched in. It was pretty much the same every year. He stared at the presents. They looked pathetic – just three little boxes sitting alone under a impetuously purchased artificial tree. Mitchell furrowed his brow, trying to envision what tomorrow morning might be like. He’d never spent a Christmas without either his parents or his wife. Marnie was right. It was different. He tried to picture previous Christmases when the three of them were together, but the only memories that came to mind were the weird ones when he’d pushed them to spend in impressive vacation spots like Cabo or Bermuda. Mitchell closed his eyes and thought back farther. After a few seconds, he seized on the image of a tiny Lucy thundering down the stairs. He recalled the dolphin-like squeaks of excitement she used to elicit at the sight of a cluster of presents and a full stocking. Hard to imagine the same girl was now upstairs in her room just–

Stockings!

Mitchell gritted his teeth. He’d forgotten to hang a stocking for her. He punched the floor, feeling a sudden, annoying thickness in his throat. The stockings – the fancy, monogrammed ones – were also with Marnie. Everything was! How was he supposed to recreate it all? All the little details. What the hell had come over him? He’d told himself he was being spontaneous, going with the flow of the holiday season. He was trying to facilitate goodness and cheer and all the stuff one was expected to embrace. Most of all, he was making a real attempt at togetherness. After a year defined by separation and a lack of contact, of arbitration offices and scrupulous custody agreements, was this not commendable? Why, then, wasn’t it going well? Kneeling before the undecorated tree next to a pathetic trio of gifts, he began to view his spontaneity as actually just ignorant recklessness. He wasn’t prepared. Not at all.

He thought of Lucy up in her room, sitting on the polka-dot comforter next to a pair of pink curtains – the colors he had hastily selected from the store. Only after following Lucy into the room, setting down her suitcase, and seeing her confused expression had Mitchell realized he’d shopped with a three-year-old in mind, not a sixteen-year-old who hadn’t worn frilly princess dresses or cute, embroidered jumpers for years. How had he overlooked this?

Then there was their meal – turkey breasts baked with gold potatoes, carrots, and leeks. A mixed green salad. A loaf of French bread with butter. Lucy had eaten a few bites of salad, hardly touched the rest. Mitchell thought of the candles he’d lit, and the new silverware and dinner plates. But then he recalled the lack of a tablecloth and the fact that they’d had to use paper towels because he’d forgotten to buy napkins. It had seemed to him, in the moment, that the details were indelibly necessary. From the moment he’d gotten off the phone with Marnie, he’d scrambled to check every box. But no matter how much work he put in, how thorough he had endeavored to be, gaps remained. A home goods store sold-out of Christmas wreaths. Botching the words to a song he’d heard a thousand times before. These were gashes in the portrait he was desperate to paint.

Mitchell felt the heat rise in his ears. It wasn’t anger coming to a simmer inside him, but something else. Shame. Exasperation. Or maybe, more accurately, it was a sense of powerlessness, like receiving an indecipherable IRS notice in the mail, or when the electricity cuts out during a thunderstorm. There was no reversing things. No exculpation. He had tried his best, but his best simply wasn’t enough. A chill pricked the back of his neck. His fingers touched cold perspiration.

Marnie used to tell him that he wasn’t attentive. That he flew through life at thirty-thousand feet. That he refused to bring his head out of the clouds and actually connect with her. Mitchell always hated to hear her say it, always had a comeback cued up when he suspected the argument was turning down that path. But as those accusations came to mind now, none of his rebuttals seemed as shrewdly astute as he once considered them. He felt the heat rush from his ears into his cheeks. Thickness returned to his throat.

Defiantly, Mitchell cleared his throat and stood up. He walked across the living room toward the foot of the stairs. Outside, his own red and green Christmas lights, tacked around his front door and draped under the eaves, twinkled and jittered in the night breeze. A car pulled slowly into the cul-de-sac, as if taking in each house. Probably some carefree, happy family taking in the neighborhood decorations, Mitchell thought. He turned away from the window and looked up into the bare upstairs hallways.

“Hey, Lucy!”

There was no answer. He waited a few moments, then called again, careful to keep the timbre of desperation out of his voice.

He heard the door open, and a sense of relief engulfed his body. Lucy came to the top of the stairs. He saw she had changed her clothes. Her jeans were heavily frayed at the knees. A snug, purple sweater exposed her midriff. Her dark hair was down and straightened. There was even more makeup on her face. She was carrying her coat.

Mitchell’s face fell. “What are you doing?”

Lucy descended the stairs. “Going to a party.”

“A party? What party? What’re you talking about?”

Lucy exhaled deeply and slid past him at the bottom of the stairs. “Don’t make a big deal of it, Dad, please?”

“A big deal of it?” His voice cracked slightly. “You didn’t say anything about a party. And your mother said that you–“

“I won’t be out late, OK? It’s at Brad Thurman’s house. That’s like one neighborhood away. He’s just having some people over for a Christmas Eve thing.”

“But, Lucy,” Mitchell objected. He stammered for words. “I’ve got you this weekend. We were supposed to celebrate together.”

He stared at her, mouth agape, as she checked herself out in the entryway mirror, one of the only items he’d gotten around to hanging on the walls. “We did celebrate. We had your meal and that pie and everything.”

Mitchell started to reply that she’d practically ignored everything on her plate, and that she was doing the same to him now, but before he could speak, as if she anticipated his comment, Lucy said, “It was nice, Dad. I’m just, you know, still full from lunch at Mark’s house, that’s all. I’ll be home later. Don’t worry. We can, like, do presents or whatever tomorrow morning. Whatever you want.” She passed in front of him again, then peeked through the open window blinds.

“Lucy,” he protested again. “C’mon, honey. I’m trying. I’m… you know… really trying.”

“It’s fine,” she told him. “I gotta go. He’s here.”

Mitchell felt a logjam of words in his brain. Who’s he?, Don’t go, You’re not allowed, I can’t let you go dressed like that, Please stay, We can do anything you want, You don’t have my permission, How dare you think you can just leave?, I’m going to call your mother… None of them seemed correct. They were all as thin as tissue paper, each one pitifully lacking the firmness necessary to reverse the situation. Nevertheless, he opened his mouth to speak – to get something, anything, out – but his throat now seemed utterly choked by an accumulating mass. It snuffed his voice like a wavering candle. He tried to clear his throat again. It came out somewhere between a moan and a whimper.

Lucy opened the door and waved at the car in the cul-de-sac, now idling at the curb in front of the house. Mitchell could just make out the silhouette of a kid in a ball cap and a puffy jacket at the wheel.

“I can drive you!” he blurted, a strained and devastated plea. “I don’t mind.”

Lucy turned to look at him. She was smiling, but he knew it wasn’t genuine. He could see the irritation underneath. Her darkly lined eyes reflected an abiding impatience. Marnie’s voice invaded his mind again: She’s just like you.

“I thought,” he said, stepping outside in his socks, “maybe we could just take a moment to… I mean, we have a chance to reconnect and…” He closed his eyes and tried to gain control of his words. “Look, I know this year hasn’t been easy for you. It’s been hard for me, too. For us all. But we have a chance to–“

The car’s horn cut him off.

It was only a mild bleet, but Mitchell’s eyes immediately narrowed. He took another step outside, fully prepared to sling an expletive or two at the driver. It was quite cold. His face, however, was hotter than ever. When he lifted a hand to point at the car, he saw it was trembling, but not due to the temperature. Directly across the road, the words “Merry & Bright” mocked him, and the window wreaths, like observant eyes, judged him.

“Dad,” Lucy said. He felt her briefly touch his shoulder as she stepped past him. “Just let it go. You’re making too much of this. Relax, OK? I’ll be back later. Don’t worry.”

Then she was in the passenger seat and not looking his way again. The car rolled away from the curb, then picked up speed against the quickening wind. Its headlights swept across the lawns, momentarily illuminating a group of pedestrians making their way toward the cul-de-sac along the sidewalk. He watched her disappear at the far end of the street by the church, where the church’s doors stood open and parishioners buttoned their coats as they headed for the parking lot.

He stood on the concrete walkway in front of his house, arms folded to hide his shaking. His gaze drifted from one house to the next, the warm yellow glow of their windows, the twinkling lights, the red ribbons, the garland-lined front porches, the ornamented trees in the front windows. From where he stood, it all appeared so pure and established, as if all the decorations had sprung up naturally out of faithfully cultivated earth. Every detail perfectly curated and checked off the list.

Presently, the group of pedestrians on the sidewalk paused in front of the house with “Merry & Bright” spelled out on the lawn. One of them walked briskly up to the front door and rang the bell, then rejoined the group. Mitchell watched as the door opened and the figure of his neighbor filled the doorway. The group promptly began singing.

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed

The carolers’ breath rose in small white clouds. The neighbor, whose name Mitchell did not know, had not yet taken the time to meet, turned quickly and shouted into the house. Moments later, several more people crowded the doorway, and they all stepped onto the porch.

Despite the cold burrowing through his thin dress shirt and slacks, Mitchell did not move. He listened to the entire carol. Then he watched the group move further along the sidewalk while the neighbors at the first house clapped and called out holiday greetings. The carolers repeated the process at the next house. Mitchell saw that their audience this time was an elderly couple and no one else. Since moving in, he’d seen the man, tall and lanky, puttering around the flower beds on occasion.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung

The couple peacefully received the music. The man put his arm around his wife and drew her close against the chill. It was clear that the carolers had rehearsed. Two men, standing behind the rest, intoned a low, noble register, while a trio of women’s voices harmonized with one another. There was also a pair of children, maybe nine or ten years of age, their angelic voices lifting into the night. It really was lovely.

At the third house, the one next to Mitchell’s, the carolers began very softly. At first the words seemed lost within the sound of the wind sifting through the tree boughs. But then the breeze deposited a ruminative, haunting melody in Mitchell’s ears. He glanced at his next-door neighbor, who had come out to stand at the edge of his yard with his wife and four children huddled together. The glow of the inflatable decorations cast them in a faint, green light.

Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Something icy and tiny touched Mitchell’s cheek. Another alighted on the back of his neck. Several white specks fluttered in front of his face. He looked down and saw more clinging to the edge of his tie, and speckling his black dress socks. The carolers sang on.

Gave thee clothing of delight
Softest clothing wooly bright
Gave thee such a tender voice
Making all the vales rejoice

Catching his breath, Mitchell reached a quivering finger to the edge of his nose and gently lifted away a flake. He stared at it inquisitively as it slowly dissolved upon his fingertip. More nanoscopic jabs of ice, more wetness on his cheeks. He turned away from the carolers and raised his eyes. A million tiny stars were falling to earth. He tried to clear his throat again. Sniffled.

The carol was concluding: Little Lamb, God bless thee. Little Lamb, God bless thee. The children clapped. The wife called out, “Beautiful!” The husband nodded his head and thanked them. Mitchell’s head was still tilted skyward, but he figured they were now approaching his house. He heard the scrape of thick shoes on the sidewalk.

Then came a soft count-off, and the carolers began in perfect unison.

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day

They were swaddled in heavy winter coats, their necks nestled in bright scarves. Two of the women were wearing fuzzy hats. One of the children, the smallest, wore mittens. His cheeks were noticeably pink. The group bobbed slightly and merrily with the tempo, smiling contentedly as they sang. Flurries dusted their coats and stuck in the women’s eyelashes. It was perfect, Mitchell thought. Worth a thousand window wreaths and Gingerbread pies. He wished Lucy was still up in her room, wished he could run back in the house and call to her. Here, finally, was something for her to see, something she wouldn’t be able to brush aside.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Mitchell smiled and prepared to offer applause, but the carolers quickly launched into a second verse, so he folded his arms against the cold and kept smiling. Meanwhile, the mass in his throat seemed to be swelling in size, becoming hard to ignore. There was an aching soreness behind his eyes. He felt some of the flurries on his cheeks melt and begin to roll to his chin. He sniffled again.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Again, he unfolded his arms to clap. Again, the carolers continued to another verse, to lyrics beyond familiarity for Mitchell. The carolers kept smiling and bobbing and singing, and so he stood before them, shivering but respectfully receiving their gift. His feet, however, had turned to leaden blocks. And he was struggling to swallow. He could feel more flurries melting and flowing freely down his cheeks. The harmonious voices, lovely as they were, began to sound hollow in his ears. His was the last house on the cul-de-sac, he realized. Perhaps this carol was their finalé. Stand here just a little longer.

The singers bid him tidings of comfort and joy a third time. And then a fourth. Mitchell was fully shaking now. It was the cold outside, of course, but he felt his very equilibrium crumbling. Perhaps the shaking wasn’t only coming from an exterior frozenness. The music was summoning a reaction inside him, too. He did not want to be out here anymore, and yet he couldn’t just turn his back on the carolers and walk inside, could he? What kind of person did that? Mitchell tried to recollect his upbringing, the Christmas Eve services from decades past, and how many verses were in this carol. How much longer would these words go on? He felt feverish, his face hot, his neck cold, his eyes swollen and stinging.

O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

At the final refrain, he fell. His backside hit the concrete walkway, and he crumpled into a feeble sitting position, his arms hanging limply between his knees. His shoulders jerked up and down. He tucked his chin between the open collar of his dress shirt. Involuntary noises escaped his sputtering lips. His face was soaked. Hundreds of flurries, it must have been, melting and dripping down his face.

In the absence of music, there were a few awkward claps from next door. His neighbor’s family had remained outside to marvel at the snow and listen to the next carol. Mitchell wondered if the old couple was still outside, too, watching from their porch. So be it, he decided. Let them all stare at him. Let them stare at the single, middle-aged executive who’d only recently moved onto the street. Let them wonder why he was alone on Christmas Eve and collapsed on his lawn in front of a group of strangers. What did it matter?

“Sir?” one of the female carolers said. “Are you OK?”

“We shouldn’t have sung all five verses,” said another. “You’re not even wearing a coat.”

“Or shoes,” added one of the men.

Mitchell lifted his head and peered up at them from where he sat, his face a messy contortion of despondency and smeared snot. His entire body shook like a washing machine. Yet he cupped his hands like a beggar and lifted them. “Would you p-please…” he began, his teeth starting to chatter between words, “s-sing another?”

The men at the rear of the group looked at each other. One of the women wearing a fuzzy hat frowned and placed a cautious hand on both children’s shoulders. “Are you sure you don’t want to go warm yourself inside?”

Fighting for control against his quaking, Mitchell firmly shook his head.

The carolers consulted one another with confused expressions. They shrugged. They mouthed a couple things back and forth to each other. Mitchell heard one suggest, at a whisper, that perhaps they should just repeat the first song they had sung.

“Could you m-maybe…” Mitchell uttered, “s-s-sing ‘White Christmas’?”

“What’s ‘White Christmas?'” one of the children asked, looking up at the adults.

“It’s not a carol,” the fuzzy hat woman answered.

“P-p-please?” he struggled. “If-f-f you d-don’t mind.”

“Sir, I really think you should put on a coat.”

“I w-w-will,” he answered. “Aft-t-t-ter the song.”

Again the carolers exchanged uncomfortable glances. The neighbor next door quietly ushered his children back into the house. The woman in the middle of the ensemble finally shook her head. She started to say something, a disinterested look on her face, but suddenly a low, noble voice cut her off.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know

Mitchell hugged himself. He closed his eyes. The man’s voice was sturdy, yet sonorous. There was warmth in it, and an elusive kind of sincerity. Mitchell dragged the damp sleeve of his dress shirt across his eyes and leaking nose. He said, “You s-s-sound like Bing Crosby.” An odd peacefulness settled upon him. It didn’t calm his shaking, but it did seem to assuage the tumult inside of him. He began to sing along softly.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Mitchell smiled and nodded. “That’s r-right,” he whispered. “That’s the w-way it goes.”

More Than You Know

Mystery can be an inconvenience.

Recently, a friend of mine was in a difficult situation. She was facing a consequential decision and needed help understanding what the Bible had to say about it. Consulting several believing friends had only left her more confused, because it turned out these friends didn’t just disagree on the issue at hand. They also differed on the very way to interpret and apply the biblical passages related to it. Struggling with these unknowns, she reached out to me to find out what I thought about it all.

I suspect many Christians have experienced similar occasions. It’s common, as we make our way through this life, to face difficult conundrums and tricky situations that give us pause and send us back to Scripture for instruction on how to act. Sometimes the solution is obvious. Other times, though, the answer is obscure, and we’re left in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty as we try our darnedest to pass the square peg of culture through the round hole of God’s Word.

I think I need another concordance.

As a pastor, I’ve been approached by folks hoping I can offer some significant and irrefutable insight into their rock-and-hard-place circumstances. After all, if you can’t make heads or tails of a biblical teaching, it makes sense to seek out someone who seems more astute. And pastors are often viewed as a higher authority to whom discernment is bestowed in abundance. The truth, however, is we’re just as often caught off-guard by Scripture’s teachings, and as dependent on prayer and reflection as everyone else. For as many instances in which I’ve been able to offer a helpful perspective, unfortunately there’ve been just as many times I’m forced to say, “I really don’t know” or “The Bible just isn’t clear in this regard.”

It’s deeply frustrating to collide with the limits of our understanding of God’s Word. Whether it’s determining the meaning of a particular command from Scripture, or when the circumstances of life suddenly deposit us into a fog of uncertainty, rarely does God provide his answers on-demand. Unlike King Solomon, our own requests for wisdom are often met with silence, forcing us to sit uncomfortably in our finitude. In the meantime, and for as long as that meantime lasts, we must learn to live with mystery.

And mystery can be very inconvenient. Sometimes it can seem like a cold shoulder or a slap in the face, like when someone with a terminal illness asks to know what’s in store on “the other side,” or when a grieving spouse asks what the Bible commands of him after his wife walks out. Oh sure, there are passages to read and discuss, but just as my friend discovered when she sought others’ advice on how Scripture illuminates her own dilemma, often the conclusions offered in the text are either faintly drawn or contradictory. What we want is certainty. But, sometimes, all we get is indecision.

You think we’re divided now? Try bringing up the correct way to serve the Lord’s Supper.

The Dangers of Avoiding Mystery

Resisting mystery can be hazardous. There is always the temptation to force a black-and-white conclusion when one isn’t there. To read our own preferences and cultural attitudes into the text in order to uphold a predetermined view, or to validate a personal opinion. This practice, known as eisegesis, is how despicable people throughout history have used Scripture for their own selfish ends, such as justifying genocide, slavery, or discrimination. But, on a micro level, it’s also how you and I avoid the awkward silences to which mystery subjects us.

The problem with eisegesis isn’t merely incorrect interpretation. Its greater detriment is the discord it sows among believers. Desperately scrounging for answers, we can end up muddling the Church’s witness by prematurely introducing contrary readings and counter-interpretations when all along God’s way of strengthening our faith could be that very lack of interpretative certainty.

In which case, this guy might just be a prophet.

Mystery is no accident. It’s a special tool in God’s renovation of the soul, and it has sharp edges. It should be handled with great care, with reverence from both head and heart. If we reject it, we can do damage to both. Sitting with an unknown may not be pleasant, but it can be a powerful exercise for the heart. Unfortunately, it’s much more comfortable to selfishly proof-text verses, or take a story out of context, in order to force a solution or bolster an argument. Rather than learning how to peer into the darkness, trusting light will emerge, we flee from mystery and our faith remains frail.

On the other hand, if we too easily appeal to mystery whenever we encounter a difficult teaching or an obscure text – “Who knows? We’ll just have to ask God when we get to heaven.” – we end up dulling our minds, not sharpening them. Sometimes the question is as important as the answer. Learning how to not simply ask questions, but also sit with the uncertainty of them, is an essential part of loving the Lord our God with all of our minds.

Submitting to Mystery

Of course, there’s no greater bout with mystery than when a Christian asks, “What is God’s will for my life?” This is something I’ve asked whenever I’ve found myself on the precipice of a major life decision. I know I’m not alone in this. We want to make the right decision, one that honors God. At the same time, we want our choice to be a successful and prosperous one, something that, despite what some fancy-pants televangelist may insist, is not a divine mandate.

The desire for divine direction is a good thing. It’s noble for a believer to say, as the chorus goes, “I won’t move until you speak.” However, there’s an important difference between a believer who is patient and one who is spiritually inert. We exhibit patience through humble prayer, laying our uncertainties or our difficult choices before the throne of God and asking for the courage and confidence to move forward in a manner that honors him. We fall into spiritual inertia, however, when we refuse to move forward until we’re not only certain of the direction, but also that the way is safe.

Sometimes you feel like punching Robert Frost right in his deeply poetic face.

“We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved,”insists the writer of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hb. 10:39-11:1).

It seems a contradiction in terms to define assurance by way of hope, or conviction through what is invisible. And yet, this statement is backed up with the famous “Hall of Faith” list of Old Testament saints, who walked in the way of righteousness despite not being privy to what God’s endgame for their own lives was, let alone how their faith would reverberate down through the ages.

What those men and women did do was practice obedience in the moment. Sure, they slipped up now and again, but on the whole the way they worked out God’s will for their individual lives through moment-by-moment obedience – by doing, as the saying goes, “the next right thing.” Even when it was hard, or when the way forward didn’t appear logical, let alone safe, they obeyed God’s command. Or, in lieu of an explicit command, they clung to righteousness as they perceived it. Though the command didn’t make sense, Abraham trudged up Mount Moriah with his son and a pile of wood. Though he believed it could only end in disaster, Jacob limped toward a confrontation with his hoodwinked brother, Esau. Though he’d been designated an enemy of the state, Moses walked back into Egypt’s capitol.

“You threatened the line of succession, you killed an Egyptian soldier, and, if that weren’t enough, the royal librarians just informed me you owe more than $80 in late fees!”

And then there’s Gethsemane.

Nowhere in God’s Word is the collision of uncertainty and obedience more starkly realized than in the prayer Jesus utters in the garden. While his closest friends sleep off their heavy meal, in eerie loneliness the Son of Man grapples with the uncertainty of his circumstances. Christians often take for granted the divinity of Jesus, assuming the fact that he’s God’s Son must have made him some sort of clairvoyant who knew every single thing that would happen before it took place, from the Transfiguration to Lazarus’s death to the crown of thorns. But while his spiritual discipline no doubt granted him matchless wisdom and acute perception in a variety of situations, full preternatural knowledge would have removed Jesus’ need for faith, the very thing that makes his example of obedience so extraordinary.

Time and again, Jesus appeals to the Father’s omniscience, not his own. He expresses unwavering trust and even dependence on what the Father wills. “I can do nothing on my own,” he tells the religious leaders of his day. “As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30). And it is in Gethsemane that his trust in the Father shines brightly, not because Jesus knew exactly what lay ahead, but precisely because he didn’t.

Oh, he could perceive the net was closing. He understood Judas wasn’t just off somewhere distributing alms. He was well aware his demonstration in the Temple had been like initiating the countdown on a bomb. He knew that, in this powder keg of a society, he and the Twelve had long since passed a point of no return.

No, what lay ahead wasn’t a complete mystery to him, but it was shrouded in the murk of unpredictability and risk. It makes sense that what Jesus desired in that moment wasn’t to rush headlong into those distressing shadows, but rather to bypass them. He wanted to avoid the tribulation bearing down on him, to sidestep the unjust retribution aimed his way. He was overcome with anxiety about what lay ahead, so what did he do?

He brought his difficult choice before the Throne, seeking the courage and confidence to move forward in a manner that honored his Father: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I want, but as you want” (Mt. 26:39).

It’s a prayer of obedience, a decision to do the right thing even when the outcome isn’t clear or safe. Essentially, Jesus was saying, “Father, I’m afraid of what’s coming. I don’t like it and I don’t want it. But, no matter what, I trust you. No matter what, I will obey.”

Jesus wasn’t asking what was God’s will for his life, because he already understood the Father unveils his will as we obey. It is the same for every person’s life. God’s will is for you and I to obey moment after moment after moment, and to trust that our good and gracious Father will concern himself with the rest. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus told his followers, “and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33).

The Desire to Please Him

But, some may ask, what about when we’re not sure how to obey? What about when we’re faced with a choice that isn’t explicitly addressed in Scripture? What about when the counsel we seek is divided or even at odds with one another? What then?

And what about when the other way is just as fair, and has perhaps the better claim?

In his extraordinary work, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton records an extraordinarily honest prayer expressing his desire to remain faithful in the face of mystery. I have no idea where I am going, Merton confesses early on. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But it’s at this point in his prayer that instead of fleeing from mystery, Merton chooses to embrace it, allowing the unknown to do its edifying work. Though he’s confessed his lack of understanding, he follows it up with these words:

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

So, don’t flee from mystery, or try to explain it away. Embrace it. In your head and in your heart, make room for it. Sit with it not as an awkward stranger, but as a newfound companion.

And pray. Fill the gray silence of mystery with your prayers. Bring your confusion and distress before the Throne, but don’t merely request an answer, for God is not cheekily holding his hands behind his back waiting for you to pick one. Instead, with the same assurance by which you approach a close friend, ask him for the courage and confidence to move forward.

And, finally, trust. When it seems he hasn’t spoken directly to your situation through Scripture, know that the word of God speaks also through our consciences, to the hearts and minds that refuse to run ahead of him.

Mystery can be an inconvenience. But it can also be one of God’s greatest lessons.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

When You Have to Toot Your Own Horn

There is no greater work than to practice His mercies daily.

That is the particular pearl of wisdom I’ve contemplated in my prayers over this past week. I must admit, though, that while the truth of this precept seems obvious, I forget it regularly. As the persistent gray of winter stretches out before us, and as we continue through the throes of an exceedingly bleak pandemic, the idea that God’s calling and his blessings might actually dwell right in front of our faces isn’t easy to accept.

These days, I often feel as if I’m suspended in limbo, as if my life is unfolding in an intermediate state between the shadow of What Was and the brightness of What Will Be. So much of normal existence is in hiatus right now. I cannot think of another season in my life in which I’ve had to wait on so many different things all at once.

But, above all, what’s made this time of prolonged deference even harder has been the interminable focus on finding a job.

Resumés, References, and Cover Letters, Oh My!

After making the difficult decision to step away from my last church position back in July, I’ve been doggedly searching for my next place of ministry. This has meant spending months scouring various listings, applying to search agencies, and, of course, polishing up the ol’ resumé. And it’s that last one that really starts to mess with your head, because crafting a resumé can easily become an exercise in self-promotion.

As anyone engaged in a job hunt knows, a resumé isn’t merely an ordered list of past employment and corresponding responsibilities. It’s a way of selling yourself. A medium by which you cast yourself in the best light, highlighting those attributes and accomplishments you hope will stick in the mind, those personal qualities and impressive experiences that resonate with hiring managers, HR reps, or church search teams. You don’t just make sure the document is clear and crisp; you try to make it sing.

“Ooh! This one plays “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Oh, wait. It’s the William Shatner version.”

To a degree, this makes sense. A person should strive for excellence in every endeavor, even when it comes to compiling his background, acquired skills, personal talents, and defining accomplishments in a mere 1-2 pages. As a system for making initial evaluations, I certainly can’t think of another method that would be as orderly or efficient.

And yet, the desire for a job can sometimes lead you down bad paths. It could be dishonesty, in which you exaggerate or outright lie about your qualifications, or it could be egotism, wherein your efforts to present yourself as a commodity too valuable to turn down gives rise to an inflated sense of self-importance. We all want to put our best foot forward, but rarely is someone going to play a fanfare for you. Sometimes, you’ve got to toot your own horn. However, in so doing we must recognize that self-preservation and self-absorption are very real, and very destructive, temptations.

Where Greatness Comes From

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” Jesus asked his followers (Mt.16:26). I take his words to mean not simply that salvation is more valuable than earthly comforts, but that whatever worldly pursuit we engage in affects us on a soul-level. And because my highest pursuit involves the denial of self, any pursuit that cajoles me toward self-promotion poses a dilemma.

I don’t mean to imply it’s vanity to talk about one’s accomplishments or advocate for one’s skills. On the contrary, I’m quite pleased with my specific talents and a lot of the work I’ve done in previous positions. At the same time, though, I’m grateful for the One who bestowed these talents and entrusted me with those opportunities in the first place. As the minister Douglas McKelvey writes in Every Moment Holy, his book of prayers and liturgies, “It is not you that will do any great thing for God, but God laboring in you and through you who will greatly accomplish his own good purposes according to the workings of his sovereignty and love.”

Thus, there is no greater work than to practice His mercies daily. Or, to borrow the words of Jesus’ friend and spiritual hype-man, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).

John the Baptist, seen here posing for the cover of Judean Men’s Fitness.

Where Resumés Fear to Tread

All of this has had a significant impact on my search for a new ministry post. On the one hand, I have to do everything I can (short of lying, of course) to make my 2-page snapshot stand out. Those in charge of hiring for the kind of positions I’m applying for usually receive anywhere from 50 to 500 resumés. (That’s poorer odds than the majority of Hollywood auditions.) But on the other hand, I must simultaneously entrust my pursuit to the will, direction, and timing of the God of All Wisdom, who not only knows me better than I know myself, but also knows every church better than they know themselves.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Pp. 2:3-4). What I’ve always found interesting about the Epistle to the Philippians is that, among the many New Testament letters to the churches, Philippians is highly affirming. In so many ways, the Christians in Philippi were banging on all cylinders. And yet, Paul is compelled to remind them of the dangers of self-centeredness, which is really the root of all other sins.

In truth, the Devil is capable of using all sorts of noble, honest endeavors to compromise God’s people. That includes the crafting and sending of resumés. Over the past six months, I’ve received a few disappointing rejections, a couple even before making it to the interview stage. Naturally, these missed opportunities drive you back to the resumé, to pour over each section and consider each line with the kind of critical eye that would make Strunk & White proud.

Hmm, under “Special Skills,” I included “Fluent in Dothraki.” … Nah, that’s super impressive. I’m leaving it in.

Again, nothing wrong with that. But in the midst of these discouragements I’ll admit that I’ve also fallen to the temptations of self-doubt and disillusionment. I’ve considered whether the sum of the parts I’ve included in my resumé – even though each one is a gift from a loving, generous God – is far too deficient to ever compel another church to consider me.

In my moments of confession, it’s these doubts and insecurities I continually bring before the Throne. “Lord, I believe,” I cry. “Help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). Help me to see myself as you see me, as a child of the King, whose worth is not wrapped up in his own ambitions and pursuits, but in the matchless worth of the One who sits at the right hand of the Father.

So, in the same way, may you remember that any good work you have done, and any good work you bring about in the future, is not the product of your own exceptionality, but rather the workings of God’s indomitable, merciful, holy Spirit, who will not be deterred in accomplishing his purposes, even through one as lowly and needy as you.

May each of us accept that our greatest works are not to be found in whatever positions we’re called to in the future, but are, and will always be, found in the daily practice of His abundant mercies.

And when I consider who I am, may it be as my Lord’s instrument, whose song is so much sweeter when placed before the lips of the Master.

Be invested instead, child,
in simple obedience to your king,
and in long faithfulness to his call,
shepherding daily those gifts and tasks
and relationships he has entrusted to you,
regardless of outcomes and appearances.

Douglas Kaine McKelvey, Every Moment Holy

All Who Take the Sword

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

President Donald J. Trump

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

John 18:36-37

I wonder what was going through Simon Peter’s mind the moment Jesus rebuked his act of violence. As the servant of the high priest dropped to his knees with his hands pressed against his gushing wound, and the guards charged forward, and Peter took a step back and prepared to meet them, sword in hand, he and the rest of his fellow disciples must have believed this was the moment. This was the day they would take back their country.

Of course, they were no match for the Temple police. But what must have left Simon flabbergasted was his master’s statement, which immediately followed: “Put your sword back into its sheath. All who take the sword perish by the sword. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Mt. 26:52, Jn. 18:11).

Or what was he thinking only a little while later when the woman, who was guarding the courtyard gate of Annas’s house, asked him whether he was a Galilean sympathizer (Jn 18:12-18)? His response was a quick, “I am not.” It was a denial of convenience, a little white lie that gained him access to the proceedings within, where a contingent of the Sanhedrin were set to condemn Simon’s master.

Two thousand years removed from that fateful night, Christians consider all of Simon’s actions – the drawing of his sword, the three denials – to be blatantly sinful acts. But I suspect Simon Peter thought little of them at the time. His goal was to draw closer to Jesus – first to protect him, then to remain nearby, ready to do what needed doing for the sake of God and country. He was convinced that peace and order were on the line. Morality and righteousness and truth and justice were being threatened. In this scheme of things, what was one small denial?

So, it wasn’t the actual words he spoke that left Simon Peter weeping before a Judean sunrise. It was the dawning realization of just how misplaced was his passion, how misguided was his patriotism. What brought him to shameful tears and chased him into the dusty street was a recognition of just how far he had strayed from the will and way of Jesus, his Teacher and Lord.

A Tale of Two Cities

Simon Peter exemplifies an important truth for all who profess belief in Jesus, who call themselves “Christians.” It is that even the most fervent believer can disobey. Even the most ardent follower can get it wrong. He can mistake the vision. He can misconstrue the path.

Simon Peter spent years in Jesus’ inner-circle. He had the extraordinary privilege of sitting in his presence, listening to him speak, asking questions, witnessing first-hand the way his master spoke and acted. And yet, at the climax of that experience, when everything he had seen and heard was coming to a head, Simon chose a worldly kingdom over a heavenly one.

It’s this tragic mistake we’re witnessing more and more starkly in America right now. As I write this, throngs of protestors are storming the Capital building in Washington, D.C., threatening and demanding that Congress overturn the results of the presidential election. Their actions today are akin to Simon Peter drawing his sword. They have offered up their lives not for a heavenly kingdom, but an earthly one. We can see quite clearly the tale unfolding – it is a tale of two cities. No matter what religious affiliation they claim, if any, these trespassing protestors have chosen the city of Man over the city of God. I suspect some have trouble envisioning how the two might actually be different.

A Kingdom Not of This World

To follow Jesus requires a shift in one’s allegiances. This isn’t something a lot of Americans want to hear, but it’s clearly on display in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. For the first disciples, it required being labeled religious blasphemers and political insurrectionists. It put them in the cross-hairs of the Temple authorities and eventually led to derision and bloody persecutions at the hands of the Roman Empire. So it is that even for those modern-day believers who are convinced our religious freedoms are being systematically stripped away, our instruction from Scripture is to assume the positions of humility, peacemaking, and non-violence.

By no means must Christians assume a position of indifference to governmental rule, but their allegiance to any worldly government – friendly or not – is fundamentally a limited allegiance because it isn’t their highest allegiance. The highest is reserved for a King who insisted his kingdom was not of this world, that it must never be confused with any earthly government.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary transformations in the entire Bible is the one that takes place in the years between a zealous Simon Peter drawing his sword in Gethsemane and a timeworn Saint Peter, who toward the end of his life held out the following teaching:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authorities of every human institution, whether the emperor as supreme, or the governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right… As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-14, 16-17

As a reminder, tradition tells us that soon after this teaching was offered, the emperor whom Simon Peter encouraged all believers to honor ordered that Simon Peter be crucified for treason.

I don’t doubt Simon Peter was concerned about the government’s injustices. Nor do I think he was turning a blind eye to the crescendo of ostracization and persecution against Christians. But what old Peter understood that young Peter didn’t was that our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to be the hands and feet of our Savior in this world. It’s to embody his way, to cling to the example he offered even as he was accused without cause, tried without evidence, and executed without remorse.

To follow Jesus is to choose peace over contention, humility over cynicism, and forgiveness over fairness. We are commanded not to stand up for our own rights, but to surrender them that we might inherit God’s greater plan. Doing so isn’t always convenient or comfortable, of course. It may indeed look more like weakness than strength, like you’re letting the world walk all over you. Even though they profess to serve Jesus, some believers may not be able to stand the idea of not taking their stand, especially when it seems their world is falling apart.

But as it is, his kingdom is not from here. It’s not a kingdom that must be guarded or contended for or fought over. Just as his salvation is not a battle but a gift, so it is with his kingdom.

It cannot be won. It can only be received.

The Stall

1

I do my best to hide the pain.

The little house is crowded. With the relatives in town, there is hardly a place to sit, let alone a private room or a bed to oneself. I share with Yosef’s younger sisters, but at night I must turn about constantly. Eventually, one of the sisters takes hold of a blanket and moves to the floor, not far from where her brothers sleep. This morning, I wake with an aching back and an odd cramping pain that flares up at random. Throughout the day, I bite my lip, trying not to show how uncomfortable I am.

Lately, the baby seems completely uninterested in sleep. He moves about my womb with a great, bouncing restlessness. The women of the house say he’s eager to be born, that he’s impatient to meet everyone. One of the sisters wonders aloud if all the kicking and shifting means he’ll be a handful to raise. I feign a laugh, but I’m wondering the same thing. The child’s abiding energy unnerves me.

I count it a grace that the women even indulge my presence. None of this has come easily for them either. I don’t begrudge the forced kindness in their tones, or the way they maintain a slight distance from me most of the time. Occasionally I’ll turn my head and catch one of the sisters quickly averting her stare. It’s to be expected. Here in the southern lands there are less whispers, but whispers nonetheless. These women may trust Yosef, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever fully trust me.

It’s difficult not to have Yosef nearby. Everyone is more gracious when he’s around. He has a calm and quiet way. Without saying a word, he can evoke goodness and courtesy from an entire household. But he doesn’t linger in the house. When the morning sun gilds the eastern hills, he’s out the door, his purse thrown over his shoulder and weighed down with tools. The better part of each day he gives to the community – repairs their lentils, patches their roofs, restores the walls in their homes that have begun to crumble. Like his father before him, Yosef is an agent of renewal for this village that has watched him come of age. And now, with the census, there’s more work to be done, more people to shelter, more mouths to feed.

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The odd morning pain has increased. It no longer seems random, nor does the discomfort abate for long. I try to mask it, try to turn my winces into smiles. My heartbeat quickens. I know what’s happening, and I’m afraid.

Not now. Not yet.

Some evenings, Yosef eats with those whose homes he has serviced that day. The others, he appears only briefly, hardly long enough to dip a hunk of bread in the stew and chew, before withdrawing again to the ongoing project outside. From where I sit now, furtively breathing through the contractions, I can hear them on the other side of the house wall – Yosef and his younger brother scraping and packing and grunting from the weight of the materials, and the short statements from their father, Yakov, whose knotted, shaking hands have long-since precluded him from work, but who still points trembling knuckles and offers experienced advice. It is slow work, and now I worry it has been too slow. My throat lumps, and tears push against the back of my eyes. After all, it’s my fault the room hasn’t been finished. Yosef is more than a capable builder, but because of all that has happened, and the way it has happened, he hasn’t had enough time to complete the job.

Yet it seems HaShem has completed his.

2

“Are you all right, child?” Yosef’s mother is gazing up at me from the bottom of the stairs that lead to the lower level of the house. She has been lining the mangers with hay. Behind her, the sisters lead the animals inside for the night – a goat and two ewes freshly sheered, one of which carries a lamb of her own. She walks slower than the other, bleating meekly as she’s jostled inside. I know how she feels.

“I’m fine.” The old woman eyes me carefully. “It’s just… just the baby moving again. There’s no room.”

“Sounds to me like there’s plenty of room,” she replies.

The sisters finish shooing the animals to the troughs. Their mother hands a large clump of hay to one of them to take to the work ox, which is tied up outside – a shared possession among the neighbors. The dog trots inside as well and takes his place at the foot of the stairs. Yosef’s mother closes the door, then steps deftly over him and ascends the three steps to the main level. She meets my eyes and continues. “To be moving about like he is, there must be room enough.”

I nod. A tremor rattles. I exhale nervously. I know Yosef’s mother has been keeping watch over me. She’s nothing if not perceptive. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to conjure peaceful thoughts.

The one that comes to my mind – that has sustained me even as my anxieties have swelled – is the image of Yosef stepping across the threshold. Not the threshold of this house, but rather my father’s house.

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Only four months ago, he turned from me. I had begun to show, and the rumors were spreading. Our confrontation was inevitable. I told him everything, as bewildering a tale as I knew it would be. The more I said, the more those expressive eyes of his flared with stifled fury and humiliation. Of course they did! How do you describe something like that and not sound utterly mad? His warm expression grew cold as he listened. His lips were set like a seal, locking in all emotion. Then my father sent me out of the room, but even from the courtyard I could hear their tense conversation, the shock and frustration in Yosef’s voice. I knew something had been broken. Like water from a cracked well, his trust was draining away.

I didn’t expect to see him again. No one did. But now, in my mind’s eye, the scene unfolds anew, and for a few moments it calms my nervous breathing. I see Yosef at the door of my father’s house, not a month later. His hands are clasped in front of him as he steps inside and removes his sandals. I watch, my heart in my throat, as he kneels in front of my father and asks his mercy. Then I am left open-mouthed when he does the same to me. “Forgive me,” he whispers. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.” I want to cry and laugh and speak all at once. I want to tell him that I hardly understand it either. I want to ask him what has changed, why has he returned? But I have no words. Here he is, back in Nazara, back in the home that scorned him, and he is on his knees like a chastened sinner, deferring to me. “Forgive me, Miriam,” he says, and the only response I am capable of is to reach out and take his hand in mine.

I’ve clung to that hand ever since.

3

“When do you think they will finish?” one of the sisters asks as the goat and the sheep nose eagerly at the hay in the mangers. The other sister is about the work of preparing the house for another crowded sleep – spreading blankets on the berths and the floor. Outside, scraping sounds testify that mortar is being spread. Incrementally, the walls grow. Just a few more days is all Yosef needs to finish it. I imagine the privacy such a room could offer. If only it were already finished.

“Soon enough,” Yosef’s mother answers.

“Will someone be able to sleep there?”

“Of course,” the older woman answers. “But not until after the ceremony.” She unfurls a blanket and spreads it below the bed I’m to sleep on. A few feet away, Yosef’s youngest brother is already asleep, snoring loudly. Yosef’s mother surveys the room, a grimace on her face. I know she recognizes how small the house has become. She doesn’t let on, but her concern for the new room to be completed is as heightened as mine. She tosses a fleeting look in my direction, evaluating me with a glance. I try to keep my composure, but I’m sweating now. I wonder if she is aware that time is up. The room is not finished, and there is no place available inside either. No suitable space for what is about to happen.

She turns away to fetch another blanket. That is when I double-over as another wave of pain rolls through me. Gripping the edge of the table, my fingernails dig into the rough wood.

“Will the ceremony be… before…?” Yosef’s sister falls silent. From across the candlelit room, she sees.

“Let’s not discuss it right now,” says her mother softly. Then her eyes catch sight of her daughter’s gaze, and she whirls to look at me again.

4

Before anyone can speak a word, the door to the house opens and in steps Yosef’s father, brother, and, finally, Yosef himself. Chilled night air billows in behind them. Yakov walks right past me, shedding his cloak. “It’s started raining,” he announces with disappointment. “Not long, I reckon, but we’ll have to take a break for now.”

Yosef’s mother ignores her husband. She rushes past him and both brothers to kneel at my feet. She lays her hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, child?”

“Miriam?” Yosef’s soft voice is tinged with concern.

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I hardly want to move for fear I’ll make the pain worse. My face contorts. This newest wave is horrible. Is it supposed to feel like this?

“Breathe, my dear,” says the old woman, taking my hand. “Breathe long and slow.”

“I can’t… there’s no…”

“Don’t speak. Breathe.”

“But there’s no…”

“Just breathe.”

A shudder overwhelms me, from my shoulders down to my feet. My jaw tightens. I want to speak, to raise a protest – I can’t have this child here! There’s no room! – but my body won’t allow it.

“Breathe, Miriam,” she urges. “It helps to breathe.”

“What can I do?” The inquiries come from all directions, from Yosef’s brother, from Yakov, even from the younger one who, in the suddenly tense and crowded house, has sat up rubbing his eyes.

One of the sisters rushes forward and crouches next to us. “Fetch a basin and as much clean cloth as you can find,” her mother commands. Through squinting eyes, I see her gaze pass over the room once more. Her brow is furrowed. She looks dissatisfied, disappointed. I want to apologize, to tell her how sorry I am, sorry for what I’ve done to their family, for the turmoil I’ve caused, but I’m still paralyzed by the contractions.

“Mother,” says Yosef, kneeling on the other side and taking hold of my other hand. I immediately squeeze it, and won’t let it go.

“Don’t fear, my son,” she says, but she doesn’t look at him. She is still considering the room.

“It’s not finished,” he tells her. “The walls, or the roof. And it’s raining.”

Red-faced, I suck in breath. A moan escapes my clenched throat.

“I know,” Yosef’s mother whispers. “We need space and privacy. There are too many people in this house!”

Finally, the intensity lessens, and I release a long, ragged breath. Tears immediately follow. My shoulders tremble with sudden, uncontrollable sobbing.

Yosef places his other hand over mine. “Miriam, it’ll be-”

“Draw some water,” his mother interrupts, “and heat it. Quickly.”

“No!” I cry as Yosef stands up. I can’t bear him leaving my side.

“Don’t be afraid,” she tells me, taking hold of my hand and working it free. She is surprisingly strong. Yosef hurries away. His brother frantically stokes the hearth fire. “I want you to try to stand up,” she says softly. She’s come around and is already lifting me from the chair.

Somehow, I gain my feet. My knees shake. Where are we going?

Yosef’s mother looks for her other daughter, finds her standing frozen at the foot of the lower level steps, eyes as full and wide as the moon. “Put the animals out,” she says abruptly. “And bring in more straw.”

“But… but where is she going to…”

“Don’t stand there blubbering, girl! Do as I say. We need room, however we can get it.”

“My dear,” Yosef’s father says. “The stall?”

Still holding me tightly, she turns to her husband. “Yes, Yakov. The stall.”

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I’m hit again. Unable to hold back a scream, I collapse against the old woman, but she keeps me upright. “Breathe, child. Breathe.” Then she looks back to her husband. “If there’s no room, then we’ll have to make room. Help us down these steps, and then go give word to the women. Tell them where to find us.”

“Mother,” says Yosef’s brother. “Let me go to the neighbor’s and ask if we might-”

“Enough of that,” the old woman insists. “We’ll not be shooing this poor girl all over Bet Lehem. She is in no condition for it. The stall will do. What matters is the child. Now, be silent and fetch some blankets.”

Yosef’s mother is practically carrying me, an astonishing feat for a woman of so small a frame. Her daughter frantically shoves the animals away. The dog scampers back, and the pregnant ewe gives an irritated bleat as she waddles back through the stall door and into the courtyard. Yakov, soon to become my father, somehow keeps the two of us balanced with his palsied hands. We slowly descend the wooden steps to the dusty, straw-laden floor. The smell of musk, hay, and excrement greets my nose. Nausea floods through me.

“I can’t,” I tell them. “It can’t be here.”

A voice behind me, confident and calming, says, “It will be all right, Miriam. I’m here. I’m going to stay by your side.”

“Don’t be afraid, child,” his mother whispers in my ear as we shuffle toward the rear stall, as private a spot as can be found in the little house. “I know it’s not the way you wanted or the way you expected, but even in such a place as this, HaShem is with you. He is with us all. You’re not alone. You’ve never been alone.”

The Politically Relevant Tale of Aaron Boone

I want to tell you the story of Aaron Boone, a man who, seventeen years ago, broke my heart and ruined my year.

I know, I know, there’s too much going on right now. With all the election results rolling in, and so many news outlets and social media feeds to consult, and petulant press conferences to stare at, who’s got the time for a story? But, please, indulge me. The tale I have to share speaks directly to what is going on right now in our country, to the frantic tug-of-war over electoral votes, to non-concession speeches, and to the teams of lawyers descending upon state election offices like ravens to carrion. For all the pain he caused me, I appreciate the lesson Aaron Boone taught me all those years ago, and I want to share it with you.

First, let me introduce you to ol’ Aaron at what is arguably the greatest moment in his life:

Now, let’s back up and set the stage. Back in 2003, the American League Championship Series pitted the scrappy Boston Red Sox – a team I have been devoted to since I was a kid – against the dreaded New York Yankees. The Yankees entered the playoffs as the top team in the American League, and the Boston Red Sox were the Wild Card team, having finished the regular season in fourth place.

Most people know the Red Sox and Yankees are bitter rivals, and that their fans loathe each other. In fact, many see in each other the very worst of the sporting world. Thus, plenty of drama was already baked into this series. A lot was on the line. The Yankees wanted to prove they were definitively the best team in the league, and put the Red Sox, who had been nipping at their heels all season, down for good. They had shown themselves to be the better team during the regular season, but now it was time to do the same in the post-season.

On the other side, the Red Sox wanted to overcome the pinstriped juggernaut and, at long last, return to the World Series, which they had not reached since 1986 and had not won since 1918! For over eighty years, they’d suffered under “the curse of the Bambino,” but now they were finally poised to change the tide.

It was a nail-biter of a series. The Red Sox won Game 1 handily, but then the Yankees won the next two. Boston drew even in Game 4, the Yankees took Game 5, and then Boston rallied in the latter half of the penultimate game to force a momentous Game 7.

A best-of-seven series seemed inevitable, and so, on Thursday, October 16, 2003, sports fans throughout the country tuned in to see who would emerge triumphant from the fray. Boston took an early lead, but as the game wore on the Yankees chipped away at it, eventually forcing extra innings.

And that’s where Aaron Boone comes in.

At first, he didn’t seem like much of a threat. He had only entered the game a few innings earlier as a pinch-runner. That made what came next all the more shocking. I watched helplessly as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eleventh and blasted Tim Wakefield’s first pitch into the left field seats. As the ball leapt off his bat, my heart leapt into my throat. Yankee Stadium erupted, the Yankees flooded the field, and a jubilant Boone stomped definitively on home plate.

Meanwhile, the blood drained from my face. Exhausted, emotional, and sorely disappointed, I felt tears well up in my eyes. My side had lost one of the closest games – and series – in modern history. Worst of all, the Bambino’s Curse held sway.

I was devastated, angry, and more than a little willing to criticize the Yankees. Now that they had handed my team such a hope-shattering loss, I hated them even more (if that was possible). In that moment of sorrow, they represented everything awful and despicable about professional sports. And, like any true fan, I also had some judgments to pass on my own team. Why had Red Sox manager, Grady Little, left a visibly fatigued Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth, even after he gave up a double and a single? Perhaps it had been a strategic decision, but it nonetheless resulted in three runs for the Yankees, which tied the game.

There was plenty to criticize and bewail and regret and second-guess. After such a long season and a contentious, hard fought championship where so much was on the line, the frustration and dejection I felt was completely understandable. So, yes, I did my fair share of complaining.

But you know what I didn’t do?

I didn’t cry, “Conspiracy!” I didn’t declare the game was rigged. As upset as I was by the loss, I didn’t insist Boone’s bat must have been corked, or that Mariano Riviera was doctoring his pitches, or that Joe Torre was stealing signs. I didn’t stomp my foot and announce that every run scored after the seventh inning was ill-gotten and should be erased from the scoreboard. No, as depressing as the loss was, I was mature enough to accept it and move on.

Pictured: the sheer weight of my heavy-handed metaphor.

No doubt some will argue that a presidential election, particularly this presidential election, is much more serious and consequential than a baseball game. Indeed, if you’ve truly bought into the groundless conspiratorial chatter that this election was actually a contest between people who loved America and people who hated it – that it pitted a true patriot against a mustache-twirling autocrat – well, then nothing I write here will make an ounce of difference to you. To your own psychological peril, you’ve chosen to live according to an us vs. them narrative.

However, if you haven’t surrendered your sense of reason and your trust in democracy, and if you are willing to accept that this election was a choice between two dedicated Americans who love our country but hold radically different ideologies on how to show that love, then hopefully the story of Aaron Boone and the 2003 ALCS offers some much-needed perspective to what is shaping up to be yet another frighteningly divisive moment in our nation’s history.

Yes, a presidential election is far more significant than a baseball game, (even an ALCS Game 7). But there remain more than a few similarities between presidential campaigns and Major League championships (and not just because of all the ball caps, colorful banners, and chest-beating crowd chants that have marked this election in particular). Just like MLB teams, both candidates recruit as talented and dedicated a personnel as possible, and in turn that team of people work incredibly hard for months, even years, to build the most formidable campaign, one that can win early, win consistently, and win when it matters most.

When we, as “fans,” jump on their bandwagon, we can become just as invested, if not more, in their success. Many of us will, without even realizing it, start remaking our very identities around this affiliation, while simultaneously disparaging – or even despising – our counterparts on the other side. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at the last five articles you shared, or the last ten posts or tweets you tossed into cyberspace. What does that snapshot reveal about you? What topics does it seem were the most important to express to the rest of the world?

I get it. Losing is never fun, and the greater the stakes, the harder it is to stomach (especially when you had a solid lead for a lot of the game). But we all know that losing is a part of life. If every ALCS loser cried “Conspiracy!” when he didn’t win the trophy, all he accomplished would be damage to his own reputation and to the sport. In the same way, if we buy into the lie that every contest that doesn’t go our way must somehow be secretly rigged against us, we will only tumble into a cynical, joyless darkness of our own making.

Here’s the most insidious thing about conspiracies: if you look for them, they’re pretty easy to find. That’s not because they’re true, though. It’s because they’re convenient. They turn us into corrupt and bumbling detectives, making up our minds on whodunnit and then searching only for evidence that fits that narrative. From the outside looking in, this practice is irresponsible and pathetic. But from the inside looking out, it’s commiserative. No matter how illogical or petty they make someone sound, conspiracies offer a semblance of comfort in the midst of disappointment, control in the midst of failure.

Look, you don’t have to be happy with the outcome of the game, or match, or election, et cetera. But in order to maintain a healthy outlook on the world, it’s important to accept the result and move on. Otherwise, you’re interior monologue, you’re dinner conversations, and your social media feeds will all start to sound as petty and obsessive as those nuts who call in to sports radio every afternoon just to projectile vomit their neurotic fandom into the ears of anyone who will listen.

“Okay, we’ve got Dave from Dorcester on the line… again. I wonder what’s on his mind today?”

When Aaron Boone connected with Wakefield’s pitch, it was like a punch in the gut. Were the Red Sox actually cursed? Was it possible to overcome these detestable Yankees? Would they ever make it back to the World Series, and, if so, how long? Before Boone was even finished rounding the bases, I was already lamenting over what a long, long off-season it would be and if my side would ever rise again.

Right now, roughly half the country is elated, like those fans in Yankee Stadium back in 2003. The other, however, are weeping wicked hahd into their Sam Adamses. And yet, as polarized as we might feel, we two fandoms, who have been so callously tribalized against one another, have the opportunity and dare I say the responsibility to find a way forward? For crying out loud, we learned the appropriate coping lesson way back in our childhood, remember? You know, it’s not whether you win or lose…

Sure, sure. A presidential election is much bigger than a baseball game. Still, though, there’s a stark parallel we mustn’t miss, because the future of our democracy depends on our sportsmanship in the present. Do we want to protect the integrity of the game by exhibiting humility and trust, or do we want to tear it apart by stewing in bitterness and spewing vitriol? It’s easy to be a sore loser – easier still to insist the match was stolen from you. It’s much harder to swallow your pride and offer a handshake to the other side. But it’s the right thing to do.

As of this moment, America is a field full of relieved celebrants and heartbroken runners-up, and the rest of the world is watching. What we need more than anything is to take a deep breath, look each other in the eyes, and sincerely say, “Good game.”

A Few Moments of Peace in the Peaceable Kingdom

Outside my window is a pallid sky, an unremitting drizzle, and the kind of mugginess you get when autumn reports for duty but summer stubbornly contests the election. It’s a sunless day. Gloomy, lugubrious, melancholy. Pick your adjective.

On boring, featureless days like these, hope feels hard to come by. The pandemic continues to siphon our nation’s positivity. The relentless cacophony of politics drowns out our optimism for the future. We keep talking past each other on issues of race, climate change, the economy. And so, while hope has become a precious commodity we need more than ever – more valuable than toilet paper in March – unfortunately there seems less and less to go around.

Maybe that’s why today I found myself daydreaming of heaven.

My imagination wandered into that mysterious realm, that inscrutable kingdom that lies both in our future and outside of time itself. I did not picture the eye-rolling stereotypes of clouds, golden gates, and Roman columns, since none of those come anywhere close to sound interpretations of Scripture and the handful of enigmatic images it provides. No, I pictured that prophecied coupling of heaven and earth from Revelation 21-22, in which every inch of our world is saturated with the goodness, beauty, and truth of God’s presence. Skeptics and atheists may say this is a desperate and pitiful reverie, an utterly incongruent idea when placed next to what we know of human history. Still, the thought of this heaven is the boost my heart needs when the streams of hope run dry.

Of course, whenever I envision the light of the New Jerusalem gleaming like some divine Minas Tirith, I end up with more questions than I do certainties. Not what will such a land look like, necessarily, but what will life in that great new age be like?

OK, cue the predictably lame “I Can Only Imagine” jokes…

That’s the point of the exercise, right? Not simply to picture a beautiful place, but also to cast our hearts and minds to an existence rescued from all the societal unrest, ugly partisanship, and tragic wilting of truth.

And so I wonder…

Will There Be Politics in the Kingdom of God?

You laugh, I know. After all, right now the very thought of politics brings a grimace to the face of Trump and Biden supporters alike. But if I read what is inarguably the most beautiful scene in the Book of Revelation to its conclusion, I find this curious detail:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring its splendor into it.

Revelation 21:23-34

Did you catch it? Alongside that divine capitol city, there are nations… and kings… and state visits, apparently. Which means even in the glorious kingdom of God in some form or another there are gates and borders and territories. There are regions and locales, dominions and jurisdictions.

It seems John’s vision, or at least his perception of that vision, unfolded according to something like a system of suzerainty, in which tributary states prosper as protectorates under a greater sovereign state. Whether or not this form of international relations is simply a way for our finite minds to comprehend the incomprehensible, or is actually God’s chosen structure for his consummate Kingdom, one fascinating aspect it assumes is that eternal life progresses within a perfected governmental structure, of which the Lamb is the head. There will be monarchical oversight, perhaps a Camelot-like administration, yet completely devoid of scandal, hypocrisy, and duplicitous agendas.

Thankfully for everyone, God is not on Twitter.

I know, I know… I’m already lost in the semantics of this otherworldly reality. Still, with every bombastic tweet, every puerile power grab, every legislative bottleneck, and every vindictive political meme a friend callously posts on Facebook, the promise that God will not merely eradicate politics but rather teach us what governing truly looks like is the kind of hope I want to cling to on gray days like this one.

Will There Be Art in the Kingdom of God?

I remember how my friends and I used to regularly pester our poor youth minister. Only in his early twenties himself, Stephen somehow dealt with our impertinences with the patience of Dumbledore. That didn’t mean he didn’t get fed up sometimes, though. One night in particular, we were peppering him with ill-conceived questions about heaven. After patiently fielding as many ridiculous inquiries as he could, in exasperation he finally held up his hands and said, “Look, guys, here’s what I think heaven is going to be like. I think we’re going to sing praises to God all day, and we’re going to like it.”

We winced and looked at each other. Praise God… all day? Like, all day? Just some endless worship service? Ugh! Would we have to wear church clothes?

“So, like, is the heavenly banquet like a big church potluck? Will I get in trouble if I bring deviled eggs?”

Thinking back to that moment, I smile. Stephen was doing his best to sketch us a picture while remaining true to Scripture, and yet we had worn him down so much he had little imagination left. Don’t worry, he assured us. In heaven, church’ll be fun.

Scripture does not paint a full picture of heaven, least of all what our main activities will be, but it does allude to moments of congregational praise of God for his glorious power and love. And rightly so. Worship would certainly underscore life in God’s kingdom. But we also know there are all sorts of ways to worship God – to express our awe, our adoration, and our thanksgiving. Music is one way, but so is writing, painting, sculpting.

Art is the expression of ideas and concepts too important for only one mind to possess. It’s a creative act bestowed by a benevolent Creator. For me, preaching a sermon is a form of art, while for another it may be photography, playing a great round of golf, composing a musical, or fine-tuning a stand-up routine.

If art is how we experience all that is good and beautiful and peace-giving in life, then art also extends beyond those activities commonly considered part of the medium. Thus, art is found in a fisherman expertly casting his fly, a carpenter deftly sanding down a length of wood, or a gardener gently guiding her plants into full bloom. It is expressed in that magic space where one’s power, patience, and passion meet.

While not Scripture itself, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s oft-quoted “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reinforces the idea that our attention to beauty – and our recognition that there is beauty even in our most instinctual and mundane actions – is a core part of worship. The poem concludes,

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

Is it too much of an extrabiblical stretch to believe our Creator will allow us to retain the capacity and love for creating, even within the perfection of our imperishable bodies? That in addition to singing the Lord’s praises, we might also write in reverence of them, paint in reverence of them, make music and movies and even amazing meals in reverence of them?

This may be just me wanting to take some of this world with me when I die. Or, perhaps it’s me wanting these beautiful things we get to experience in this life – things like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or Tom Colicchio’s braised short ribs – to be more than just beautiful things, but rather genuine traces of heaven itself.

Will There Be Seasons in the Kingdom of God?

The expectancy of the seasons is a fundamental aspect of life on earth. Cynical philosophers may declare that time is merely a human construct, but scientific research actually reveals we don’t count hours, days, and months for arbitrary reasons. It’s actually a response to immutable natural forces. The concept of a twenty-four-hour day, for instance, is how we acknowledge the intuitive rhythm of our internal circadian clock.

The dang circadas are keeping me awake!

So, let’s talk seasons. While today’s mugginess isn’t pleasant, we’re nonetheless entering the time of year I treasure most. The welcoming cool of autumn, and its crisp scents and colors, is coming on. The season of harvest. Every year, it lifts my spirit. I marvel at God’s imagination, his astonishing attention to detail.

I know the same could be said for summer, but I’ve never been near as fond of it. It’s hot, humid. You have to schedule your morning run before 7 AM or you risk heatstroke. Even evening strolls make you want to shower afterward. Granted, I grew up in Texas and I live in Georgia, so you get what you pay for. But this is all the more reason why I adore fall, and why I hope the same unique and sublime sensations it brings will be present in the heavenly kingdom.

Here’s the thing, though. Again, the cynic will say, “Well, technically, autumn signals death and dormancy. It marks the withering of life (even if only temporary).” The leaves may change into beautiful colors, sure, but they end up a lifeless, brown pile on the yellowing lawn. Crops are harvested and fields are mowed. Sunlight retreats. It’s darker in the mornings, and it’s darker in the evenings. This is a season of senescence, old age preparing for expiration. As lovely as an autumn breeze may feel, what place would such morbidity have in the renewed and eternal kingdom of God?

A valid point, I suppose. The description of the kingdom in Revelation 21-22 does repeatedly claim there will be no need for the sun or the moon, for all illumination will come from God himself. So, if there is no day or night, how can there be a harvest season? How does one even sow seeds or reap their fruit?

On the other hand, the final image of John’s prophecy is of a restored Eden, in which there are indeed crops which yield fruit each month (Rev. 22:2). So, either there are no seasons and these crops are as magical as everything else, or in heaven the harvest season is a permanent state rather than a passing one.

Now available FOR ALL ETERNITY!

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know, or at least, here’s what I believe.

The gospel is the story of hope emerging, struggling, dying, and living again. It is the way of Jesus, who reigns as King of heaven, and every year hence the earth has, in its skies, its climates, and its seasons, retold his story. Through both splendid songs and harrowing groans, through both mountain vistas and dissolving glaciers, this world tells the story of its once and future King. It has offered its very being unto its Creator.

When you think of it like that, even the mugginess of this gray day is put into a greater perspective. In these times when all hope seems lost, the earth itself reminds us that these moments, however long they feel, are fleeting. They are but a single page in a grand book about the triumph of hope. And I can’t fathom why the telling of this glorious gospel would ever cease once heaven and earth meet. No, in the peaceable kingdom, I believe it will be on display with even greater eloquence than it is now.

I know, I know. It feels like an outlandish fantasy, even for the devout. No doubt I’m playing and bit too fast and loose with Scripture here. But, you know, given the spiraling fear and acrimony being sown today in our politics, our national discourse, even our homes and our churches, I’ll take a few peaceful moments in this heavenly daydream however I can get them.

Because they remind me that hope remains. It endures.

A Sense of Place

When I was a kid, I enjoyed rearranging my bedroom. Every once in a while, I was overcome by an urge to completely rework the space. Nothing was wrong with the prior arrangement; I just wanted something new. I know my parents heard me shifting stuff around back there, but they didn’t seem to mind. I pushed my bed across the room, shoved bookshelves into different corners, and reorganized the posters on my wall. Whenever I finished these renovations, I was brimming with pride over my visionary use of feng shui.

There was only one problem. No one else cared.

I had no siblings to invite for a tour. Plus, I lived far from town, so my circle of friends rarely congregated at my house. I believed I had created a thoroughly welcoming space, but few people would ever experience it.

Lately, I’ve realized the same dilemma plagues the local church. When it comes to our hospitality toward the wider community, we unwittingly operate from a “come and see” mindset. We push promotions and shove forward new programs in an attempt to draw people inside. Meanwhile, numerous research polls show that even as churches utilize cutting-edge technology to gain public attention, church attendance is steadily declining. Even the growth of large church bodies is primarily “switchers,” people who simply jump from one congregation to another, rather than the result of genuine new relationships forged in the local community.

churches

Collect them all!

Over twenty years of ministry, I experienced this mindset several times, particularly whenever the churches in which I served were engaged in a building program, whether it was the construction of a brand new campus or merely the renovation of an existing building. I’m sure there are thousands of pastors who, like me, were regularly approached by congregants and new acquaintances with questions about those building plans. In those moments, the easiest response is to speak from a “come and see” mentality – to talk about a state-of-the-art sanctuary with a seating capacity of this or that, or a sophisticated, interactive classroom environment for children, or an aesthetically pleasing multi-purpose space from which a dozen different ministries can operate. It’s easy to paint that mental picture, to extol the bells and whistles and fixate on the sleekness of it all. Just you wait. It’s going to be awesome!

But what does any of that matter if no one cares to see it? If we build only what our congregation needs, what have we accomplished other than an expensive room remodel? Too often in my sermons have I felt the need to pose this question: What good is it to build a warm welcome space if we haven’t first learned how to be warm, welcoming people?

Isn’t that an essential responsibility of a local church?

coffee

But… but… but we’ve got a coffee shop in the lobby!

I believe churches should exemplify a commitment to caring for the local community. Christians should consider not simply how their particular physical meeting spaces look to outsiders, but also how those places directly serve the neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations in their immediate vicinity. I don’t just mean how inviting your sanctuary looks, or how conspicuously you advertise your church name to the wider community. I mean being good stewards of the places and spaces God has given you by opening them to community use. Sure, becoming a polling location is great. You know what’s even better? Partnering with local government to facilitate town hall meetings, or with local schools for after-school clubs or tutoring programs. Yes, a food pantry is a wonderful resource. But what if, in addition to dedicating that large closet to collecting canned goods, you turned that extra acre of green lawn into a community garden or weekly farmer’s market that championed healthy eating habits?

“With a commitment to place, and with gratitude for the immensity of God’s gifts there,” write C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their excellent book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, “our churches become catalysts of human flourishing: nurturing local economies and local culture, and seeking the common good of our places.” This is a community-minded extension of the Apostle Paul’s own encouragement, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

But this kind of mindset is not exclusively a religious practice. Whether we’re talking about a church’s presence in its community, or simply a person’s presence among his or her neighbors, “come and see” is never as compelling as “go and be.” On its own, “come and see” allows us to pretend we’re hospitable without having to put our hands and feet into it. Over the years I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned folks who claimed they loved to entertain people in their home, yet I never once saw the inside of it, and whenever I would invite them over to mine, I learned their schedules were actually far too busy to accommodate such a visit.

planner

“I’ve got ‘Me-Time’ scheduled every other Thursday from 6:05-6:25 AM…”

We can get so caught up in arranging and re-arranging our own lives that we have little if any desire to welcome other people into them. Technology has made us remarkably efficient and productive, and yet we seem to have less and less time for actual community interaction. These days, we speak more to Alexa or Siri than to our neighbors. Groceries can be ordered online and picked up without ever having to set foot inside the store. Amazon leaves just about anything we could possibly want right on our doorsteps. Increasingly, as a result, our front porches are empty, our neighborhood encounters are fleeting, and involvement in community life is at an all-time low. And if you think Covid-19 hasn’t ingrained an even more rugged sense of rugged individualism into the American social fabric, you’re living in a fantasy world.

Recovering a sense of true community is no easy thing, especially in the middle of a global pandemic where the best preventative is “distancing” from each other. But if we will keep our self-preservationist instincts in check, then maybe we can begin to cultivate a willingness to provide for the needs of others with the same impulse that drives us to provide for ourselves.

Sometimes this will mean designing a church campus that strives to meet your community’s needs, not merely your own. More often, though, it will simply mean pausing at your mailbox to ask your neighbor about his day, respecting someone even if his or her political opinion doesn’t match your own, or engaging in a genuine conversation with the lady ringing up your purchase at Publix, even if you don’t like talking through that pesky face mask.

karen

Oh, and it also means actually wearing a mask. (Sorry, Karen.)

From time to time, we all get those urges for something new. But when you get that itch to rearrange your schedule, don’t forget to make some room for, well… for whatever opportunities might come your way. Because they’re everywhere. We just have to shed the “come and see” mentality, step outside our doors, and take those chances when we see them.

 

*this post was adapted from a recent column first published in The Jackson Herald 

From One Pastor to Another…

Dear Pastor,

I’m thinking about you today. I want you to know that I’m hopeful for you, concerned about you, nervous for you, appreciative of you, and fearful for you. Most of all, though, I want you to know how much I admire you. It hasn’t been easy, has it?

I write to you out of my own experiences, but truly it is you I hold in my mind. I know our circumstances aren’t identical, of course, but the equivalencies persist. Whether you serve a small church like I do, or a large church, or something in between, none of us found ourselves exempt from this struggle.

The Teacher says “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), which in one respect is true. But, still, no one we know has gone through this before. No professors, no mentors, no older pastors we look up to and occasionally call for advice. Sure, there have always been hard seasons. As we’ve told many a church member over the last few months, every generation goes through trying times, frightful times, life-altering-and-redefining times. There’s wisdom to be gleaned, for sure, and  we have squeezed every last drop from that sponge. Yet the unprecedented nature of these times remains; we’re still waking up each morning under a dark-cloud reminder that the old rhythms have withered and ministry has become far more improvised than we would prefer.

I admire you for sticking with it. If I’m being honest (and what’s the point of writing to you if I’m not), at times I’ve wondered whether I could stick with it. I’m trying, and I know you are, too. Some days are better than others. I place my faith in the truth that God is faithful. But those who claim this faith is easy are most certainly false prophets.

Going Online

First, there’s the struggle of “doing church online.” Just the phrase itself is rife with problems, both grammatical and ecclesiological.

I don’t know about you, but I was already frustrated with social media before this crisis. The fellowship it offers isn’t genuine. The connections and dialogue made available within its parameters are only phantoms, bearing no real substance. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok… they serve a purpose, sure, but you and I both know they cannot sustain the deep needs of the human heart. After all, what does it profit a man to get a hundred Likes for posting a politically snarky meme, yet forfeit his soul?

When we try to use social media to foster genuine fellowship, it’s like trying to slake our thirst with a spoonful of salt. Now, however, we have little choice. We face a circumstantial compromise – for a season we must figure out how to conduct the genuine fellowship we once knew within the dimly lit halls of the social media complex, while all around us flutter a thousand and one black-winged temptations, the unspiritual disciplines of conspiracy theories and clickbait, the rotten fruits of screen addiction and instant gratification. It is not the catacombs of old, by any means, but ours is a harrowing time nonetheless.

I’ve gotta ask, how have you been delivering your sermons? I’ve been preparing them as best I can, though my preferred weekly schedule was quickly tossed in the garbage. But then I’ve had to set up cameras to film them myself, then download to my laptop, then teach myself how to use video-editing software… Preaching the sermon used to be the finish line of a weekly marathon filled with reading, prayer, reflection, research and writing. Once you finally preached it, though, at least you were finished. There wasn’t another four more hours of footage adornment and audio adjustment on the back end to make up for the handicap of it not being delivered in-person.

Meanwhile, you ache for your worship pastor, who is simultaneously engaged in his own struggle to lift congregants’ spirits and inspire them to raise their voices in their own living rooms, all while deprived of his full band or vocal team. Your Children’s Pastor is wracking his brain to somehow convert all his high-energy, hands-on activities to a video stream. And your Student Pastor, whose heart continues to fall as with every passing week fewer and fewer teenagers exhibit the patience necessary to gather online for Bible study because, for crying out loud, they’ve already spent hours on Zoom trying to complete their schoolwork. You want to encourage them, but what is there to say? This is not the way the church should function, and the proof is in the pudding.

I admire you, because despite these setbacks and the completely unexpected load of extra work, you’ve plunged forward into this unsettling new world. “To the work! To the work! In the strength of the Lord,” as the old hymn declares, “and a robe and crown shall our labor reward.” You’ve kept your eyes on the horizon, though it’s been hard, especially when you see the number of views or shares decrease (the cyberspace equivalent of a shrinking attendance), or when your deacons report that some church members don’t have a good enough Internet connection to even access what your team has labored over, or when you speak with church members who remind you that no amount of online content or phone calls or even cards in the mail (old school!) can combat the cruel loneliness that comes with protecting ourselves from the pandemic.

So Many People, So Little Time

Pastoral care was difficult even before Covid-19. When you become a pastor, you quickly understand the apostles’ decision in Acts 6 to establish and specify helpers. It’s hard to balance all our other expectations – directing the vision, collaborating with staff, planning worship, and preparing multiple sermons and Bible lessons, and interceding for the congregation and the community – with the personal attention people expect from their spiritual leaders. You try your best to get out of the office, to make phone calls at appropriate hours, but you quickly find the hourglass has once again run dry. There’s always tomorrow, sure, though tomorrow brings its own fresh set of challenges. What a blessing it is when your people call or visit you, because sometimes you need it more than they do.

Is it me, or has this working-from-home thing only made the sand drain away faster? All this extra work, all the challenges of trying to deal with ministerial issues and maintain congregational projects without being able to meet with all the players in person… It’s maddening how much more time-consuming that has become. Sure, I marvel at some of the technology we’ve been able to employ to keep things running these last few months, but I also know that the only Zoom meetings that run shorter than normal meetings are the ones in which people get so annoyed with the connectivity bugs that they give up and sign-off early. It may help us sustain productivity, but I haven’t experienced any advancements in efficiency, have you?

You want to go visit people. You really do. Here and there, you make a socially-distanced drive-by. You even take your family along, because you’re keenly aware you’re not spending enough time with them these days either. But even if some of your congregants wouldn’t mind having you in their home, you recognize the risk of that, and one thing you must do as a pastor-shepherd is protect the flock, even if that means protecting them from you. In between all your projects, you make phone calls or write notes. And you pray. Oh, how you pray!

At the end of each day, you feel like Oskar Schindler at the end of Spielberg’s film, insisting you could have done more, couldn’t you? You fall asleep thinking this, only to dream of CDC guidelines and controversial recommendations. You awake with a mounting burden of ignorance, of not knowing for sure how your congregants are doing.

You Shall Know the Truth

Top all this off with the struggle you’re now experiencing to determine whether reopening/regathering/resuming (call it what you will) is the right call, and, if so, what precautionary steps should be taken to protect the people even when it’s become virtually impossible in our country for people to agree on which precautionary measures are sound and which are bogus. Sure, you consult the CDC and the WHO, among others, because certainly it is for such a time as this that they were commissioned, but then you discover some folks are skeptical of these organizations. A few even consider them part of a massive hidden agenda to keep us all desperate and fearful. So it is, to your utter exasperation, that determining a set of health guidelines is to flirt with controversy, and the last thing you want to do is stir the already roiling pot of controversy. You want controversy and partisanship and all those awful, divisive poisons as far from your community as possible, but lately there seems no way around them. The truth feels elusive, camouflaged, and so you spend your days researching even more – health reports and medical journals and watching online seminars with epidemiologists – which only adds to your fitful sleep and the weird dreams you’re having at night.

All you want is to regather your church, to call them back from this forced hibernation, to provide space to connect with God and one another, to experience anew the sacred relationship between worship and fellowship. With the mounting unrest in our society, and anguished voices crying out louder and louder each day, never has it been more important to gather in the Name of the One who makes all things new.

You know people are trusting you and – if you have one – your staff to make the right decisions, but man! It’s so easy to second-guess and third-guess decisions right now. If you don’t have a staff to collaborate with, I pray an extra gift of wisdom and discernment for you. I can’t imagine doing this all alone.

Of course, you’re not alone. None of us are. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself. This stay-at-home stuff would have us believe we’re doing this solo, but then we talk to those church members who are doing everything they can to support us and each other. Those deacons who are faithfully calling the people. Those prayer warriors who have not missed one day interceding for us all. We are not alone. Our churches will always be more than me and you, and thank God for that! They are strong not because we are strong, but because the Savior is strong. “His power is made perfect in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

So, I admire you for keeping the faith. Now we know a little more about what Paul means when he says, “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim. 4:7) – there are days when this is indeed a fight. We are contending not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities that would use our doubts, our shortcomings, and our character flaws to quell the Spirit’s fire and deal a mortal blow to our faith. Thank goodness we need not fight this battle alone.

Hang in there, Pastor. The struggle is real, but so is Jesus. This too shall pass, but even if it doesn’t, salvation remains. Remember the God of the ages is with you. He blesses, he keeps, he makes his face shine bright to those who seek him.

Grace in omnibus.