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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thy will…

I’ve been editing a story today about kids toys, written by one of our ace reporters in Stockholm. Jens. A man I’ve come to love. He used to write comic books. Like me, he’s now a father, tapping out a living by jotting out yarns for our newspaper.

In my line of work, it’s impossible to escape the news even when lost in a story about playthings. Today, as I edit, I am continually interrupted by the dispatches coming into my email box from our reporters covering an unthinkable event in Connecticut. Reports on the count of victims killed and injured. Reports on the shooter, his tools, his connection to the elementary school. Reports that I’d rather not see. A sample:

WSJ: Death Toll in Connecticut School Shooting Is 20 Children, Six Adults

WSJ: Connecticut State Police Spokesman J. Paul Vance Confirms 26 Killed in Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

WSJ: Shooting Happened in Two School Rooms, According to State Police

A few minutes ago, after learning more about this tragedy, an image popped into my head of the newest addition to our family — Vaughn Tanner Stoll. Today is his ninth day on our earth and I can’t help but think he would be better off if he had just stayed tucked in his mommy’s womb. What a world we’ve invited him to experience. Where God’s will apparently takes such evil turns on a Friday afternoon less than two weeks shy of Christmas.

I think of Vaughn because I am reminded of the pain he was in yesterday and the similar feeling of helplessness I experienced while watching him cry out as I have now watching these dispatches come across my screen. What could I do but hold the boy’s tiny hand and look in his dark blue eyes and offer a few words of love.

It was the eighth day — the day of circumcision. Kimberly left me to stand with the doctor in the kitchen while she took the kids for a walk. She didn’t want to see our child in that condition — strapped to a table under the scalpel aimed at his family jewels. I didn’t either, but I stayed and experienced with him as much of the discomfort, as much of the cold air on an open wound, as much of the questioning why it needed to take place as I could. I clothed myself in his pain.

Then it hit me, just a couple of minutes ago, that I am more like Vaughn than I am like the father holding his hand. I am in a state of utter dependence. We all are. In the aftermath of tragedy, we are sort of strapped to a table and compelled to ask God one, single question to which there is never an easy answer: why? Why crush us like this? Why beat the shit out of kids in Connecticut or Columbine or Calcutta? If you can stop these things, what’s the point in standing there and watching them happen?

And why, against such a dysfunctional backdrop, did the author of the Lord’s Prayer prompt us to say the four words that seem so distant and, in some cases, so sinister and even sarcastic: Thy Will Be Done. If this is a portrait of thy will being done, we need a new artist.

If you get the chance someday, read Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger and you’ll find solidarity in the desire to punch back at God. The last paragraph, really, is all you need to read to get the gist of the entire story.

I love Twain, not because I agree with him, but because I empathize. To be angry with God in times like these is natural. To question him is to be human. To request a break from his presence is predictable.

But to abandon the first two words that serve as the preface to this prayer — Our Father — is a mistake.

As a father, I can’t always stop the pain that confronts my children, but I can choose to partake in their suffering. To share their burden. Yesterday, I would have paid my entire fortune to be the one laying on the table staring down the barrel of a knife aimed at my private parts instead of my 8-day-old son. No one offered me that option.

Perhaps he is a father like me, or a mother like Kimberly…at least in this regard. Perhaps he is the father who can’t always prevent, but is the father who longs to comfort. A father who stands next to me, holding my hand, holding my head, holding my pacifier.

Experience has taught me this. The depth of his love in times like these is so unfathomable that his presence and his emotion can easily be lost in the smoke of our anger and the fire of our disgust. He walks with us, suffers with us. And longs to intervene. And I am thankful when he does. He always does.

Where my will as a father would be to comfort those I cannot really help, his will is to heal the wounds of those who suffer at the hands of those who have no regard for his will. In giving us our own will, he turned over the ability to prevent what happened in Connecticut today. But, in giving us this prayer — thy will be done — he offers a path to redemption even when such a journey is unthinkable. He offers resurrection amid the stench of death.

You may not agree with my plan. But tonight, when I close the chapter that is December 14, 2012, I’ll do so holding the hands of Jack, Kimberly, Evelyne, and — thankfully — a Vaughn who is on the mend. And I will, with even more meaning than I did yesterday, say these words that mean everything in this broken world full of broken people prone to do broken things. Thy will be done.

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anticipation

It’s been a bit of a waiting game for me of late. A lot of waiting on a lot of different things.

Right now, waiting looks like this: laying on a couch in darkness as my wife rests 10 feet away in a hospital bed in metro Detroit. Every few minutes she contorts, cringes and writhes with the pain of contractions. And Wendy, her midwife, is currently sleeping on the chair.

We’ve been here all day and now we’re creeping into the morning hours of what will soon be Day 2. Room 10 on the third floor of Henry Ford. We’re waiting on this little papoose to emerge from its nine month hibernation. An addition to our tribe and a new citizen of our world.

But there’s a better word for this than “waiting.” More than waiting, it’s anticipation. A new life is about to step out of the womb and swallow its initial breaths, dangle its legs in mid air for the first time, blink its eyes at the fresh glow of light.

I’ve experienced this twice in my life. First with Jack, then with Evelyne. And soon with this third child. There is much to wait for over  the entire course of a new life, but nothing is so precious, memorable and meaningful as those first moments of a father’s or mother’s relationship with their child. At this point, to anticipate any of the moments beyond those simple and beautiful opening innings of the next kid’s life is a mistake.

And it takes focus to properly anticipate. To busy one’s self with email or internet Christmas shopping or budgeting is to surrender to a heap of clutter that has no business in this hospital room. Raw, focused anticipation is required. And belief that what I am looking forward to and abandoning all else to is worth it.

And so, I lay on this couch grateful for the few hours to come. Grateful for an intimacy between parents and newborn that is unlike any other brand of intimacy. It’s a living moment, like the first kiss with your lifelong love. As a parent, there is no single window of time I treasure more. It is the cornerstone of my kingdom. And here, in the first days of this Advent season, it is especially meaningful to anticipate another little Stoll.

It’s in this context that I’ve been thinking a lot today about my approach to three key critical words in the Our Father. “Thy Kingdom Come.” I typically sprint past those words when I say the Lord’s prayer, as if they are simply stepping stones to the real work. Do they really have any meaning beyond acknowledging something beyond my control? What role do I have in ushering in said kingdom?

I’ve always had a lot more respect for the jobs of commissioning his will, petitioning forgiveness, snatching my daily bread, seeking protection from temptation and asking for deliverance. These are the raw materials of our religion, right? The nuts and bolts.

My ignorance of the meaning of Thy Kingdom Come has led me to just soak in the phrase 45 days or so without trying to capture it on this blog. To be sure, I’ve written thousands of words that have gone unpublished on the subject. And I read books, listened to lectures, discussed it in conversation.

After all that, this much is clear: I’m far from the place the author of this prayer wants me to pursue. Thy Kingdom is an elusive, slippery destination for me.

The hard thing to admit is that I can’t help but wonder if the reason I’ve lived so far from Thy Kingdom is because I’ve approached it with a sense of entitlement instead of anticipation. Over the years and in these blogs I am more than willing to admit to things that make me patently human than admit to the truly appalling. I carry around resentments, anger, lust, envy, pettiness, addiction and I’m typically willing to weave these defects into my writing and daily conversations. But I have fiercely resisted even the slightest suggestion that I approach this faith with a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is for losers.

In fact, the sense of entitlement in this religion is probably the most offensive trend among many offensive trends to me. About a month and a half ago, shortly after writing my hope and stay, I went to a church service in Stockholm where they had a special speaker. I walked out after 30 minutes because I was disturbed by the underlying point of the woman’s message. Her obedience and faith in God led her to superstardom, she said. If people in the audience wanted to be as swankified, they just needed to drop off all that sinful baggage holding them back and the gates to the kingdom would fly wide open.

This is toxic messaging. The rich young ruler was as obedient as any and he did not get his ticket to the kingdom punched—why should some famous special speaker with charisma and a few books be any different? If simple adherence to a code or equation were the salve, I think many of us would figure out a way to toe the straight and narrow. Obedience is done out of love and gratitude, or it’s not really done at all. To look upon entering Thy Kingdom as a mutual backscratching transaction (i.e., I will obey, you will let me in your divine amusement park) is to look upon it the wrong way.

Still, I bring my own blend of entitlement to the party. And my concoction is no better than what I described in the preceding paragraphs because it looks (and smells) like this: a bucket of shit. After all the study on Thy Kingdom that I’ve done, and all of the heart searching and admitting I’ve done in recovery groups and within the four walls of this little church on Grant Road and within the confines of my home or in the solitude of an airplane ride—I still carry a bucket of shit. I feel entitled to carry this bucket, in fact.

The upside is the bucket keeps me warm and secure. Like a dirty old blanket. But this bucket also puts me shoulder to shoulder not with the author of the Our Father but instead with the rich young ruler and keeps me from diving into the pool that is Thy Kingdom.

If you need a refresher on the rich young ruler, here ‘tis:

Guy comes to Jesus (the author of the Our Father) and asks him to punch his Thy Kingdom ticket.

“How do I inherit this kingdom, rabbi?”

“Don’t kill.”

Check.

“Love your mom and dad.”

Check.

“Don’t covet.”

Check.

“Don’t kill anyone.”

“Check. Anything else?”

Jesus looks at what the guy’s holding and says “what’s that you’re carrying with you?”

“This? Oh, nothing to see here,” the rich young guy says, looking down at his cargo. “It’s just my bucket. My stuff.”

“It stinks,” Jesus replies, evidently offended by the bucket’s contents. “Pour it out and follow me.”

These instructions saddened the rich young ruler because he treasured this bucket more than he treasured his life. For in this bucket was his entire identity—his wealth, his status, his hope and stay.

He walks away, unable to inherit his kingdom.

Like him, I feel entitled to hang onto my bucket o’ shit. In it is me—my career, my byline, my trajectory in life, my safety valves and backup plans. In that bucket is 35 years of blood, sweat and pride. It’s mine. But in order for Thy Kingdom to Come, I need to pour it out. *Note, I didn’t say I need to be willing to pour it out. I literally need to dump the thing upside down and watch the contents splatter on the ground. That’s the agonizing work of discipleship rarely embraced by faith healers or telepreachers. And a boatload of other religious and political and societal leaders.

The tough news is that in order to really enter the kingdom, you need to be stripped of your identity. Broken, crushed and crucified. And rebuilt with an anticipation for Thy Kingdom.

It was at an AA meeting where this old guy told me “In order to enter the Kingdom, you at some point need to surrender.” At some point, you’ve got to list all your defects on a piece of paper and humbly submit them to God and ask that he remove them. That’s surrender on a level necessary for entrance to Thy Kingdom. For it in that moment I hand over my will and pave the way for the next four words of this prayer—Thy Will be Done.

We spend so much of our time worrying about who is in the kingdom and who’s not, and worrying so much about our own place in that kingdom that we forget what the author of this prayer teaches. Thy Kingdom Come is not a place just for the perfect, pretty, republican, straight, rich and happy. And it’s definitely not a place for the entitled. It is the abode of the merciful, the meek, the impoverished in spirit, the mourner and the guy who hungers for something bigger than himself.

And ultimately, it is a place where people live in the realm of anticipation—anticipation of this: that at the end—and even in the midst—of these painful journeys in our life there is an intimacy so deep, so rich and so pure, that it reflects those initial moments that parents share with their children. Moments so real that they are nothing short of perfection. Nothing short of Thy Kingdom Come.

For Thy Kingdom, my friend, is like a mother who labors hours and hours to empty herself of the package she carries. This is a beautiful parcel, but without air and freedom to grow it will eventually whither in the womb and die. But—in her anticipation of what is to come—the mother surrenders her will and finds new meaning in the outcome. And in the process finds Thy Kingdom Come.

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