Give me the window seat

“God marks time differently than us. He marks distance differently than us. He even marks tragedy, elation, success and failure differently than us. Dare I say God isn’t entirely concerned about the same things in the same way as I am? He sees the world and time and place through a sharper and broader lens. So the mystery of Advent – that God is present in the trough of a stable – is reflective of the bigger riddle we are trying to encounter: the magnitude of God’s bigness, the inescapable reality of our smallness and whether there is a way to bridge the distance that lies between.”

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I’ve taken to sitting in the window seat on planes. It is quite the un-business traveler thing to do, I know, but as I get older I find that staring out the window gives me far more pleasure than playing with an iPad or typing on a screen or reading a book or watching a movie. There are a lot of cloudy flights where my plan backfires, but that disappointment is more than offset by the views of mountaintops, canyons, dams, rivers, skyscrapers, sandy beaches that I’ve taken in from seat 32 A or 27 D. I asked a kid the other day what looking down from an airplane is like and he said “it’s like looking down on a map.” Bam, exactly.

The word we’re all scrambling for is perspective. It’s different from 30,000 feet than it is at the foot of a mountain. The whole deck of cards is reshuffled from up there, especially on a crystal clear day. Flying over Utah a few years ago, I had the sudden urge to break open the little oval window, jump out, and try landing myself on a rocky and jagged ridge. From below, that ridge would seem insurmountable. From above it might as well of been a trampoline. I even enjoy the descent back into Detroit, watching the roads and buildings and diners and Wal-Marts that look one way from the ground look so much different from above.

This past Sunday, the lectionary drove us to Isaiah 40, a scripture that foretells the coming of John the Baptist. I was preparing to give a talk at Holy Redeemer and I just kept reading beyond the prescribed verses. I’m glad I did because I came to a point later in the chapter where the prophet refers to God sitting “above the circle of the earth” viewing us as if we were “grasshoppers.” This is where the line “stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” comes from. Always said Isaiah is among the best writers the Bible gives us, and chapter 40 is evidence that I am right.

Here’s the question: Is it even right to skim past the narrative about a very human John the Baptist — a central character in the story of the human Jesus – during an Advent season that is designed as a period of anticipation for a little baby? Yes, it’s okay. Consider another text from Sunday’s liturgy: 2 Peter 3. Jesus’ own disciple says “but do not forget this one thing: with the lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” More perspective. We stand at the foot of a trail, while God sees the whole journey from the cockpit far above. Even on the first Christmas night, as a young family and some shepherds crowded around a cute little newborn, a Father in heaven was already looking upon the cross.

A reality of Advent that we should drill into our heads over these three weeks as we walk toward the manger can be this: God marks time differently than us. He marks distance differently than us. He even marks tragedy, elation, success and failure differently than us. Dare I say God isn’t entirely concerned about the same things in the same way as I am? He sees the world and time and place through a sharper and broader lens. So the mystery of Advent – that God is present in the trough of a stable – is reflective of the bigger riddle we are trying to encounter: the magnitude of God’s bigness, the inescapable reality of our smallness and whether there is a way to bridge the distance that lies between.

Here’s the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up: “God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people – God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.” He bridges the gap, and does so even when we aren’t interested in having any help.

The invitation set out in the early days of December are not an invitation to compare ourselves with others, either in terms of how good we are or how bad we are. It’s to take our focus off our enemies and our idols, and reject the world’s unhealthy attachment to commerce and politics and touchscreen technologies and status. Instead, the invitation is to gaze toward a God who demands we confront what lies beneath.

For me, Advent 2017 is a season that still carries the sting of disbelief. That’s what lies beneath. It has been a tough year, to say the least, of lost opportunity, a lost child, and a bag full of questions that I am proving ill equipped to answer. And now, more than ever, I struggle to believe in this personal God you all have been carrying on about; I struggle to let him off the hook for the evil I see; I struggle to see equity in the way he meters out favor and punishment.

And here’s the great Temptation in the light of what Peter and Isaiah are saying about the God sitting atop the circle of the earth and his ability to keep time by millennia rather than minutes years equaling one day…the temptation is to scream out the question “Who the hell cares?” Wouldn’t it be fine to throw up my hands and ask why this gigantic God considers the grasshopper?

Peter, the friend of Jesus, warns me against thinking so small. He says, in light of considering this big God and the swiftness with which he can return and gobble the world in fire, we need to ask one question: “What kind of person am I to be?” The answer is to be the kind of person that accelerates the coming of Christ, the kind of fella that hastens the day of a savior’s return.

To me, that means being the hands and feet of Christ today as much as it means anticipating a rapturous reunion. That I might speed the coming of Christ in today’s world means that I live a mindful life, present, aware of the voice in the wilderness and obedient to its charge. John the Baptist ushered in Christ’s coming by standing in a river. The shepherds played a role by staring into the sky. The wise men did their part by following a star. My friend and I used to have a saying in college –“Contribute Christ.” Well, now is the time to do that.  Hand him out as if you were distributing the bread and wine.

Don’t get me wrong. We do well to soak in the immediate and profound silence that accompanies pain, or disappointment, or disbelief. To not have all the answers. We do well to not just attempt to move beyond it or transcend it or understand it.

But then, there comes a point where we need to find perspective. Where we retrain or refocus in a way that allows us to once again have an appropriate view even amid disappointment, even amid disbelief. Where we too begin to mark time differently.  Where we are not thrown by political events or economic trends or tax policies or the heinous acts of neighbor harming neighbor. Where our perspective is governed by God’s perspective. If you haven’t gotten to that point in the advent season, now is your time to do that.

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Divine Silence Pt. 2 (room for hope)

I was in counseling a few years ago, with Kimberly, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. We were sitting in the driveway next to our house during one of these sessions, holed up in the family’s grocery getter because we didn’t want to let the babysitter in on the dirty details of our dysfunction. Ironically, as we huddled in our minivan with our iPhone on speaker, a big truck was parked in our driveway with a giant vacuum connected to it, cleaning out our septic tank.

It had taken our counselor more than a year of regular meetings to get to the core of my problem. I grew up wanting to be a minister, wanting to help people who were broken as bad as my alcoholic grandfather, or abandoned as badly as a kid named Steven who I’d known as a boy. He didn’t have a dad; I had a great one.  But I swung and missed on this profession and, 15 years later, someone was telling me I’d never bothered to properly mourn, never opened the window to grief. He said I needed to follow the rope all the way back to my loss and just sit looking at it for a bit. No judgments, no answers. Just allow myself to be sad about not getting what I had my heart set on.

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Today’s temptation is to once again pick up and move on as fast as I can, to slam shut the window to the grief that accompanies the loss of a child.  But I can’t wiggle away so fast. What’s holding me back? Kimberly is not in the same rush to move past unanswered prayer and abandon the mess of confusion it stirs. She is still tender, soaking in remorse. Practicing emotional intimacy with her means I am subjecting myself to a degree of grounding at a time in my life when I just want to find an escape route. She reminded me this morning that we lost a perfectly good little boy, a person with my name who had done nothing to deserve leaving so early.  Then I drove by his fresh grave on my way to a meeting. And in that place, there is no other way to feel than to feel alone.  Alone. There is a troop of children at home — which should more than shield me from loneliness — but having the adorable two-year-old girl barge into the room, wake you up while she is wearing a puppy costume and tell you her name is “doggy” only reminds you that a flawless little brother who would be in line to do the same thing in a couple of years. But that possibility has been sealed in a tiny white box, covered in roses and a lollipop and buried under dirt in the ground. A grave offers more comfort than no grave, but it’s not the kind of comfort we’re looking for.

My suggesting we are isolated in the shadow of tragedy can fly in the face of certain books, songs and greeting cards that have been recommended to us or sent our way in recent days. God meets us in tragedy, these writers say, he is in the midst of the mess, he grieves with us, he slogs with us through the shitstorm. Take comfort. It all sounds right until he misses the appointment. His absence suggests he is helpless or indifferent, and his greatest defenders are made to look like fools. There was a poster that was popular for years in doctor’s offices and church foyers, showing a beach marked by footsteps imprinted in the sand. The author of a poem accompanying the picture said God told him that when there was only one set of footprints, it was then that God was carrying the author during the “very lowest and saddest times in his life.”

I’m looking behind me right now and I too see one set of footprints. They most assuredly belong to me. I wonder what I’ll do if I ever see a poster like that again. I’ll probably ignore it, maybe laugh, and dwell on a divine silence even that refuses to put words in God’s mouth.

In my last post I first referred to the idea of divine silence, a phrase that I stole from a rabbi who wrote about the apparent unwillingness to directly talk to Joseph (the coat of many colors Joseph, not Joseph father of Jesus) the way he talked to Joseph’s ancestors. Even Cain, a murderer, had a conversation with God. Although he is good at divination, Joseph lacks the audible hearing-from-God superpower and, for me, this has always made his story more believable. His willingness to hang on through false accusations, being sold into slavery, imprisonment, and being forgotten is admirable in light of the fact that his faith rested on fluffy dreams instead of a concrete conversation.

I gave John Dempsey’s eulogy on Tuesday and, although I didn’t reference Joseph, I did talk about a similar kind of faith, which is more like hope. This hope is necessary to get up in the morning, even if it extends beyond feeling or not feeling the presence of God; even if it transcends my ability to have unshakable faith in the God we’ve built. My hope is in resurrection, the type of resurrection we see everyday in the world we taste, touch and hear. Will we see John Jr. in heaven? I like to think so. But the more present question is whether I can see him today or tomorrow or next month? Will the fog clear just enough so that I can piece together the remnants of his short existence and the profound impact they had on us?

As I write, I am sitting in the exact spot I sat 18 years ago when I wrote “Your Leaf Shall Be Again,” a poem about a maple tree shedding its leaves under an unseasonably warm spray of October sun. Empathize with that tree for a moment so you can realize it is letting go of a companion it birthed in the spring and communed with all summer. The tree can’t bend down and swoop up its fallen leaf. Other trees, if they could talk, would provide no comfort if they say “hey, look on the bright side, you got all those months with the tree or look at all the other leaves you have.” And there is no comfort from Mother Nature, who took the leaf away almost as fast as it provided it. She is only going to get colder.

The only comfort would come from a voice telling this maple that its leaf will be again. Maybe not the way she expects it, but there will be a resurrection after the bitter winter.

During this eulogy, I said the days John was spent being knit together in Kimberly’s womb were days that our family was being knit more closely together. His daily battle to survive forced us to change our routine, a change that required outsiders come into our home and our lives whether we liked it or not. Letting people enter the inner circle of our pain has never been our forte. And it forced me – with all my accomplishments and fancy clothes – to ask for prayer and write vivid words and share them widely without fear of those who might judge or dismiss. You believed when I couldn’t.

I disagree with you if you say this is part of God’s plan, because there are more humane and loving ways to accomplish those things. John Dempsey should not be a martyr in the quest to make us better people who like each other better. Even amid divine silence, we see the fingerprint of God in the community John Dempsey left behind.

 

 

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divine silence pt. 1

This is the first in what may be a series of posts written in the wake of my son John’s death. I’m writing because there are few if any good answers found on the bookshelves of our homes and I have received a flood of notes thanking me for just being honest. That’s the point. The story below is raw. The picture was snapped while on a walk behind our house with my middle children and the dog Sunday, Sept. 24. This words below it reflect what was working through my mind as my kids enjoyed an Indian summer evening. — John

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I think I heard God talk to me one time. It was when I was in jail, kneeling before a concrete bench and thanking him for letting me stay alive. I had bounced my pickup truck off a parked car and then plowed into that trunk of a big tree that took up the better part of someone’s front yard. Drying out in that cell a few hours later I heard four words in my head that seemed to come from somewhere else: “The war is over.”  Could have been my imagination, could have been the alcohol or the fear or the little winged angel on my shoulder. Or I may have heard from God after 30 years of wondering where the hell he’d been.  Whatever I heard, it was a provocative statement, one that has since had me questioning why I continue to want to engage in battles I can’t win.

That was about a decade ago. A lot has gone down since then.

These days, the voice of God is silent when I need it more than I’ve ever needed words. But not words for me, words for her. Words for the person who has been broken in half by the loss of a son – the hours of holding a lifeless child in a hospital room built for saving, not taking life. She watched as my body convulsed in tears and as I walked about the room in anger, unwilling to give my boy a meaningful embrace. Then she held him. Clung to him. Kissed him. Told him over and over and over that he is loved and how beautiful he is. And I thought to myself, the longer she does this, the harder the road to recovery is going to be. With every second of being together she was increasing the agony of being apart. I kept keeping myself from standing up and telling her to let go. I couldn’t stop her. She had fought for this child’s life. Felt like she was fighting doctors and me and God all at the same time for months. That war, one she couldn’t win, tired her out and threatened her life. After birth, that’s when she could finally enter into a respite only experienced when a mother holds her child. She was entitled to whatever she needed to feel a sliver of relief from unspeakable pain.

I was actually first person in this world to touch John Dempsey. His slippery little legs caught me by surprise as they emerged from his mom, but I held them for long enough to know I would be forever changed. Labor happened fast and I was the only one in the room for who knows how long. It was long enough to physically commune with my son, with my brother. It was all I wanted because I feared that holding him any longer could push me down a hole from which I would struggle to emerge. When the nurses and doctors flooded in the room, it felt like someone pulled a truck off my shoulders. And I just wept as I held Kimberly’s hand and encouraged her to do something neither of us wanted her to do. The doctor asked me several times if I was okay.

I write with such clarity and color so you can understand why both of us are confused right now. And to remind myself to be angry; to seize the anger and publish the remaining pieces of that anger without regard for the restraint I’ve practiced for 18 years as a journalist.

I’ll take you back a few years to amplify the anger and confusion a bit. Kimberly and I grew up with the same theology. It was based on the teaching that no one asks their father for a fish and is handed a serpent. Or an egg and is handed a scorpion. “How much more will your Heavenly Father…” That scripture was taken out of context for us just long enough to make us think that we were to consider God a friend. A buddy. A daddy.

I wrote this next statement before my son died, and I’m going to write again but with more force and conviction. I’m a dad. Put a bullet in my head if I treat my girls the way I’ve seen my wife treated by the guy we requested a fish from. She is busted wide open and there is no fixing her. No. Fixing. I don’t say that out of hopelessness. I say that out of experience. Too many times, for too many years I have stood helplessly by as she shook violent with sobs. We were together, but she was alone. And she was not crying or weeping, but sobbing over a broken home, a broken marriage and now this. She has buried within her a collection of pain that lies so deep, it is unbearable to watch when it crawls out from under the surface. And there are truly no words to confront that brand of pain with. I was 22 years old when I first saw it and I was unprepared. I’m 40, and still unprepared. It’s like I’m taking a walking stick to fight a grizzly bear. The sooner I drop the stick and just lay down the better my chances will be.

I have failed to be the healer I thought I could eventually be when I was 22. If anything, she has been my healer. As for Kimberly, her healing has come by way of those four little kids running around our house. She feeds them and they feed her. Then she feeds them more and they feed her. Where she once experienced deprivation, she now compensates by the act of nourishing and nourishing and nourishing. A farmer wants another row of corn. A journalist wants another scoop. A preacher wants another soul. She wanted more vessels in which to pour herself. I get it. It’s an occupation I don’t want to get in the way of, particularly after what we’ve been through.

God doesn’t seem to share my views, however.

A word my wife has used in the wake of John’s death is “betrayal.” This is something I disagree with, but am abiding in that idea because it is a legitimate response and one for which I have no answers. I feel we are living through a divine silence, a spiritual confusion akin to Moses’ 40 years of sitting in the desert and soaking in “wtf-just-happened-to-me?” I feel like there’s a promise somewhere in our rear view mirror that needs to be dusted off and recaptured. But she’s right: Any semblance of a promise once made to us sure seems like a disfigured mess.

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…to borrow some belief

14991986_10154140592196973_6060852729038129020_nMust’ve been a month ago. Maybe a little more. Part of the red fencing that I had erected as a hedge for our garden was lying in the grass, as if it were a fallen solider struck down in battle. My daughter pointed it out. We figured a deer had worked his nerve up and knocked over the wobbly structure. It didn’t take much because that fence – like so much else in life – was a fragile edifice, erected on a busy day at a busy time by a busy guy trying to march through a busy agenda. It didn’t take an engineer to tell you the fence was vulnerable, far from the fortress needed to protect against the small army of deer that roam our property.

I was angry: so much so that I remember picking something up – perhaps a shovel or rake – and tossing it across the garden in frustration. It had been a season of losses. One of the glass panes on our old wooden door busted. My Apple watch had broken, my car was in the shop, my Ray-Bans were missing, the flippers and the fancy racing suit I use for swimming laps couldn’t be located. Earlier in the summer, I had backed out of a job opportunity I really wanted to take. Big loss. I was feeling frayed, depleted, weathered. I’m absent minded as it is. The deer that came in and ate the tomatoes and beans and spinach was an unwelcome reminder that even with the absent mind I could be doing more to prevent unwanted casualties.

As autumn peeks around the corner, that garden and the sunglasses and everything in between seems so trivial. We are suddenly wrestling with the prospect of a loss so much greater, and a loss so completely out of our control that it paralyzes the part of me that gets ticked off about the weeds growing in the cracks of the driveway or the three-day-old jelly splotch that is caked on the kitchen cupboard. What emerges in place of my petty anger? A bout with helplessness and a serious case of headscratch. Who cares about a Honda’s fender or $40 Nike swim trunks? I need someone to blame for a more elaborate tragedy taking my place, and I need that same person to come bail us the hell out.

Here’s what’s going on. My wife has been pregnant seven times and we have four kids. One of the seven is tucked in her womb as we speak, fighting to survive even while etched in the image of his or her maker. We sat in a doctor’s office this morning, listening to a diagnosis that was nearly bankrupt of hope or optimism, clinical in its approach and cold in its calculation. Kimberly’s water broke last Friday, and the yellowish amniotic fluid that protects an unborn baby (like the hedge in a garden) during pregnancy leaked out over the course of several hours. If this little Stoll survives, his or her lungs are vulnerable and will struggle to be as strong as yours or mine were when we entered the world. For now, our child is battling for survival and my wife’s body is trying ward off infection.

Some of you know this already. And a few more of you know it’s been a rough sled around our house for the past few months. Kimberly has been pregnant 20 weeks, and spent a lot of it dealing with hemorrhaging and the fear that we will never meet this child face to face. And she’s been caring for four children while dealing with a husband who has been wrapped up in concerns that will soon fade, concerns that no one else needs to care about. Understandably, our friends do care about this bigger challenge we face – and we welcome your help.

Sure, there are meals to make and floors to clean and kids to watch. Rather than email and call and wonder, know this is where is where we need help more than anywhere else: belief. Both of us are tired for different reasons and our fatigue is most acute when it comes to the trust needed to believe God can or would lend a helping hand. I speak for both of us when I say we are handcuffed by doubt right now. If you have it, use your belief to bridge the gap that exists between our empty vessels and that mustard seed needed to move this mountain.

My belief has been under attack for two decades. Always questioning the nature and origin of evil, wondering how a good God puts up with death and dismemberment. Kimberly has nursed me through that with patience, always reminding me that there are things we just can’t know, can’t explain. But now we’re both pretty much demanding an explanation, and all we hear is silence. Your prayers would be good to hear right about now.

 

 

 

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manna

I left the house shortly after 9 this morning. Mondays are like that. It’s a long day for my wife and the four kids she spends her time shaping (school then music lessons and lots of driving in between). So I stick around and do what I can to be useful before the bulk of the squad jets out the door.

Usually it means slapping some sandwiches together for lunches and getting some breakfast on the long and wobbly Ikea table in our dining room. Sometimes I change a diaper or help a kid get teeth brushed. My role is limited, but I think it reinforces a truth I want these children to understand. One of the central priorities held by the two people running this house is to be manna for these guys.  To provide. Not just manna in the form of little baggies packed with salt and vinegar chips or strawberry smoothies in takeaway cups. But to be manna. Full-serve, one-stop — no preservatives, artificial colors or GMOs.

That’s a decades-long project, and complex. But unlike so many of the pursuits I juggle, this is the one I don’t have the luxury of abandoning. I’ll be manna for a long time, maybe the rest of my life. If you’re a parent with any kind of experience under your belt, you get this.

The tough thing about Lent? I’ve got to undo everything I want everyone in this house to believe about Kimberly and I being manna. I might get run over by a bus later this week in Manhattan. Mom might slip in the shower. Then what? I’ve left my kids with an empty grocery bag, no way to nourish a body full of physical, spiritual and emotional needs that require daily feeding. And even if I’m around several more decades, branding myself as the ultimate provider is not the best strategy.

This is where this week’s lectionary comes in. My kids need a better brand of manna. Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew and Jesus hands him this response early in the dialogue: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” There is a lot more packed into first eleven verses of Matthew 4, but these seven words comprise a challenging enough mission statement for
the next 40 days.

As Lent kicks off, I’m asking myself how in the world I can make myself smaller in the eyes of my kids. How can my manna be a starting point for a better meal?

We’re all heroes in our own homes and that is a good perch for mom and dad to protect. So my initial plan– to be extremely transparent with little ones (ie let them know what a failure I really am) is understandable, but it’s a slippery slope. There is a time and place for
self-disclosure and group confession, and the dinner table doesn’t always open those doors. Nor should it.

But the dinner table, the breakfast table and the many hours in between are a place where God can be made bigger and his manna can be advertised as the genuine article. In this call to understand his bigness, our smallness becomes ever more smaller. Kids understand this – when the sun comes up the darkness disappears.

We enter Lent in 2017 and know that our culture is as vigilant as ever when it comes to trying to tear down God’s bigness. Like the serpent in the garden (Genesis 3, also part of this week’s lectionary), Hollywood and Facebook and teachers and lawmakers and even us as parents have constructed a fantasyland where it is okay to keep asking whether God really is God.  We peck and peck and peck at his sovereignty and dilute his creative authority to the point where our homes become cathedrals of doubt and we risk converting our kids heads into dens of self-reliance.

So even as we struggle to get these kids out of the house on time and clothed and fed and entertained and educated, fill the shelf with a better brand of manna between now and Easter Sunday.

This is the question: How can God become bigger in our home between now and mid April? If fasting causes you to focus more on him, and therefore increase reliance on a better provider, then do it. But maybe there is another practice to utilize or add this time around. Think about the amount of things happening between now and then. Baseball season starts, for instance, and the grass will probably start growing. By the time the first pitch is thrown or the first blade of grass needs to be mowed, will you allow the image God — by way of a deliberate practice or a set of them — to eclipse the other images in your home?

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a long night in solna

Please check out my new blog, written from Sweden titled “a long night in solna”

This blog is a collection of the reflections, the experiences, and the blessings that come during our time overseas. Where Grant Road sought to highlight the divine intersection of shared faith and daily life we found while being a member of the Holy Redeemer family, a long night shares the insights that come when a boy from Detroit gets a taste of a different world. Enjoy.

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a return to the ghetto

A year ago, I started writing this journal with an entry about our family’s journey to the steps of a little white building on a dirt road named Grant. At first blush, it seemed an unlikely venue for transformation. But over time it proved to be a durable one. I was inspired to write after watching my five-year-old son lead worship for hundreds of churchgoers. Pounding out a classic carol on the sanctuary’s upright, I couldn’t help but think we had somehow been carried away in a ghetto to the feet of a God who was calling us to a life of more simplicity, of more awareness, of more obedience.

Twelve months and nearly two dozen blog posts later, I find myself back in that ghetto. A couple of nights ago, after Jack once again performed his carol on the upright (this time with two hands), we rose for what has become the favorite part of my week: the Eucharist. The five of us filed out of our pew, into the aisle to stand in line and wait for a wafer, the wine and a blessing.

“Evelyne wants to see the baby Jesus,” Kimberly whispered to me as I settled into the line. It didn’t immediately register. My wife pointed in the direction of a big Christmas tree standing next to the east entrance of Holy Redeemer. Under the branches of this tree stood a wooden manger with a plastic baby doll wrapped in powder blue terry cloth.

Taking Evelyne to the toy baby wasn’t really high on my list. It would mean having to cross over the front of the sanctuary after consuming the elements. That’s a pretty blatant diversion from the typical path we take. Normally, we escape down the aisle against the wall and quietly slide back in our seats. This new path would draw unneeded attention to father and daughter at a time when absolute focus and reverence were required.

But my little girl’s eyes were trained on the scene beneath the Christmas tree. So I acquiesced, picking Eveylne up after Deacon Wayne dipped her wafer in the cup and placed it in her mouth. We beelined to the tree, I set her down, she kissed the plastic Jesus and went to pick him up. I stopped her, told her he needed to rest, and we exited the scene as fast as we could.

Cute and quick demonstration of a little girl’s affection for dollies, right? Yes and no.

After Eucharist, we lit those little white candles with those thick flat paper skirts on them and sang some carols. I love that practice. Hundreds of flames illuminating a house of worship late at night. Voices lifted in thanks for and adoration of the babe saddled in shit and straw. “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices. O night divine, O night when Christ was born…”

The post-carol plan was to rush to the car and speed home. Fall asleep so Santa can come drop off presents made in China, Vietnam or Indiana. But Evelyne couldn’t let that little plastic doll go. Service over, congregants flooding out the back door, deacons and acolytes cleaning up the sanctuary, she returned to that manger resting beneath the tree and snatched the baby Jesus. In her two-year-old mind, he needed a mother, a home and a respite.

I adopted the typical reaction of a father in a hurry. “Put the baby back, Bina. He needs to stay here…we need to go.” The doll didn’t belong to us. We had plenty of toys at home.

But Eveylne’s plan had a sponsor and that sponsor happened to be a priest named Father Ken. “I told her she should take him home, she can bring him back next week,” he told me. Better for the baby to make a little girl happy than sit neglected in a cold and dark building. He pulled out his iPhone and snapped a picture of Bina, clad in pink North Face gear, holding a naked Jesus.

He would later write in a message attached to the picture:

After the Candlelight Liturgy tonight, this little one kept going back into the church for the Baby Jesus. Her parents said she was concerned about him all service. I found her looking over his manger when I first left the sanctuary, and then, when almost everyone had left, I found her escaped (momentarily) from her parents, walking toward the manger in the semi-darkened church, where, in spite of my standing there, she took him in her arms and proceeded to walk him out the door and home. I could not deny her…could you?…after all, this is what we should be doing, taking Jesus Christ home with us. She’s going to bring him back on Sunday, when she and her brothers are getting baptized. A blessed Christmas to all!

My entry could end now, and the point would be made. More than ever, we need the faith and adoration of a child. Amid the sprint and jostle that is the holidays, and in the wake of unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut, we long to achieve the purity and simplicity found in the heart of a kid.

But I will add a few thoughts to this story before I sign off this blog for the year and board a plane to Sweden.

Someone suggested to me that I should be proud of my little Bina. I guess I am proud of her, just as I am proud of my little boy’s work on the piano. But pride—which can be extinguished in a fit of disobedience or flitter of distraction—isn’t the overriding emotion I pull from this story.

No. The overriding emotion is gratefulness. I am grateful to have a building where my daughter even had the chance to scam the baby Jesus. Grateful to have a daughter. Grateful to have attended that moment and had absolutely nothing to do with a little girl’s response to being confronted by the divine. Grateful to learn a lesson from someone as precious and flawed.

If this has been the year for anything, it has been the year of having my kids teach me lessons against the backdrop of this ghetto of the unswankified and simple souls that occupy Grant Road. I’ve been taught how to forgive, how to celebrate, how to laugh, how to recover. I’ve been taught over and over to return to the ghetto where I am made small, where my lack of power is on display, where my needs are met.

The kids have also taught me how to mourn in a year frayed by a few tough losses. For instance, Jack’s piano teacher died in November after a bout with cancer and he has gone on living as if she is still alive. Why? Not because the boy is in denial, but because he believes she is really still alive. Here’s how I know, and why I’m not concerned. When he learned of the tragedy of 20 children losing their lives in Connecticut, he found an unbelievably silver lining. “Now they can learn to play piano from Miss Armena just as I did because they are all in heaven together.”

And, in the closing innings of a year well lived, they’ve now taught me how to live a life of wonder and anticipation.

Earlier in the month, we celebrated the new life of Vaughn Tanner—and his presence has been the reward for nine months of anticipation. Much like the anticipation of the advent season, the long wait for a new member of our family was a reminder that the longer we wait, the larger we become and the more joyful our expectancy.

And now, Evelyne has taught me the art of true worship through a simple and unquestioning obedience. Her lesson came in the form of being aware of her need to have Jesus as companion and her need to participate in his life. And this lesson is the gem of my Christmas.

If she had simply snatched Jesus from the manger on Christmas Eve, it would be a fun story worth telling for decades to come. But it goes so much deeper than that.

Evelyne has spent the last five days or so caring for this little naked Jesus, even to the neglect of her other babies, including the Baby Alive that her mother and I fetched for a handsome price from Target early in the Christmas season. Baby Alive poops, pees, eats, and says 50 phrases. But mostly, in our house, she sits neglected because this plastic Jesus is soaking up all the attention—finding himself in the bathtub with Evelyne, sitting next to her during meals, being cuddled by her at night.

I take Jesus home with me every week as well. Whether in song, the elements, the sermon, a kind word, this little white church contributes Christ to me in subtle and consistent ways. But that’s sort of the cost of admission, right? Go to church, get some Jesus. It’s a time-honored transaction.

The real question is what do I do when I get him home? I don’t need to bathe him, feed him, or cuddle him. But I need to do more than co-exist with him. I need to participate in a meaningful way or I might as well cut the charade altogether. And so, if 2012 was a year of growing awareness, 2013 needs to be a year of growing obedience.

That’s. My. Prayer. That I would accompany a deeper degree of awareness with a simple and unquestioning obedience. May it be answered in ways I never expected.

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