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–


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.