Word of the Week

I am not one to throw around religious cliques. It irritates me in fact when folks in positions of religious leadership use such statements as "Everything happens for a reason" or "I guess God needed an angel" or "God helps those who help themselves."

Gross, really.

But I am reconsidering my use of the phrase "___ (loved one) must be smiling down on you now" after the miracle that came to this earth four days ago.image

My most long-term sister friend, Kristina was on baby watch on bed rest with her second cutie until early Monday morning. Her water broke and I got a text message before 6 am that  said, "I think we are having a baby today!"

Such would be exciting enough but then there was consideration of the date on the calendar itself, January 6th . . . a date that caused all of us waiting on this birth to pause in awe.

Nine years ago on January 6th (long before the days of texting) I got a phone call from Kristina-- the kind of phone call NO ONE wants to get. "We've lost Daddy," she said in between sobs.

Though only a few days earlier joy burst into this household as Kristina had gotten engaged to Richard, a car accident changed everything for her, her mother, two brothers and in a matter of seconds. The joy of wedding planning was no more. Her daddy's heart stopped beating. The rock of their family was gone.

Over these past nine years so much healing has taken place. Weddings have occurred. Babies have been born. Kristina's mom even got re-married. (And I was the wedding minister!)

But the fact that the dad, Larry never got to see or touch or hold any of his grand babies brought forth ache. (There are five of them now!) He was a great dad. He would have been an even more amazing granddad. I could just see the vision of Larry bouncing several of them on his knee and making up some silly song as he did it. Or baking chocolate chip cookies and sneaking an extra one to his oldest grandson. Or playing hide and go seek in his wooded backyard for hours on end.

image So when, January 6th came-- the awful anniversary day that all of us have on our calendars-- and Kristina was in labor with baby girl, it was hard not to say that Larry had some role in the whole thing.

Somewhere up from the world beyond he was smiling and asking God to help him show up in this special way as Xara Elgie Rose came into the world.

And what a beautiful day it was and a beautiful baby she is.

I am thankful to God for the thin places in this world that remind us that we are more than just bodies, but souls that live on through eternity with connection to the ultimate Creator.

I am thankful for the sweetness of friendship that I have with this family and the joy that is my new niece, Xara.

But most of all I am thankful for Larry and the knowing that his legacy lives on in Xara and the rest of the family.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—

and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt

and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them. Isaiah 11:1-6

I lay on my back, my mind and body numb from the shock. Both of my hands rested on the warm, squishy lump that the midwife had deposited on my chest. I couldn’t see her, but she felt like a wet puppy – one of those wrinkled puppies with rolls of extra skin. I remembered the woman in the birth video I had watched weeks before. She had delivered an eloquent speech to her newborn son, exclaiming, “My son! My little son! Welcome to the world! I am so glad you are here!” It had seemed like a good way to welcome someone into the world, and I had resolved to welcome my daughter with a similar speech. But now my legs shook with fatigue, and my tongue was thick with exhaustion.

It is Christmas morning. Jesus is a warm, wet, puppy-like lump resting on Mary’s chest. And some of us are singing and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here!” But at my house, the children are allowed to get out of bed and wake us up any time after 5am…so here at my house on Christmas morning, on this birth-day morning, I find myself a little sleepy. I find myself living into an exhausted peace that I have come to know well.

The truth is that my first child was born six years ago, and I haven’t yet stopped being tired. It has been six years, and we still wake up in the middle of the night for sounds and tummy aches and trips to the bathroom.

New life grows slowly. New life grows up into the world slowly. But in its slow coming we learn the practices of peace. In the midst of welcoming new life into the world, we learn God’s shalom; we practice God’s wholeness.

In the six years since I gave birth, I have learned to listen when small people whine. I have learned that the whining represents need and want and endless desire. I have learned to clothe the naked and feed the hungry….three, four, and five times a day. I have learned that today’s acts of feeding and clothing don’t affect tomorrow’s needs. I have learned that when I feed and clothe someone every day they will love me with a wild, devout, and startling love that no one could ever deserve. I have learned that this startling love comes in picked flowers, giggles, and hugs with a running start….and I have felt that kind of love heal my wounds powerfully and inexplicably.

I am learning the practices of peace, and my little children are leading me into them. It is slow work. I am frequently exhausted. But peace is coming into my world.

It is Christmas morning -- Jesus is born! Now we begin the slow and steady work of patiently raising the Prince of Peace into the fullness of his kingdom. Grab a diaper, and join the movement; the work of nurturing a baby Savior is at hand.

Let us pray:

Jesus, we are so glad you are here! Forgive us when we are too exhausted to say so. Empower us for the slow, daily work of nurturing your Body. Teach us the practices we need to be your peaceful people. And give us what we need this day to rejoice in your coming – we are, indeed, so glad you are here. Amen.

SarahJobeSarah Jobe is an ordained Baptist minister, prison chaplain, teacher, and mother of two. She lives with her family at the Rutba House, a Christian house of hospitality in Durham, NC. She is the author of Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy. As a prison chaplain, she is hoping for the reconciliation of mothers and their children this Advent.

The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst. Luke 17:20b-21

For hours, years, I’ve waited for babies and hoped with mamas, first as a doula, now as a midwife. It’s wonderful, waiting for the miracle of life to announce itself through a mother’s midnight phone call, “I … think it’s time.”

A first time mother frets about the unknown, a third time mother demands that she should have had her baby by now, if history holds. I listen closely, check that all are waiting safely, and reassure each woman that her time will come and she is fully equipped for the hard work.

I wait with near strangers and with dear friends, holding a safe space for the hard and holy work of new life: the gritty, glorious grace of birthing. I string beads at mothers’ blessings, reminders that each is encircled, supported, and loved. I give out candles, mail them to a mama’s far-flung friends so that when the good work begins, the candles are lit, day or night, rippling across the states. I keep vigil. I wait. I hope.

On call, each night I charge my phone, turn up the ringer, and fall asleep thinking of babies, mamas, and middle-of-the-night births. I wake, jolted by the call, or gently in the morning, surprised: no baby yet. It’s an exercise in patience, letting go. We talk about this early lesson in parenting: releasing control, trusting, hoping. She can’t decide when the work will begin or what it will look like, but she is an integral part of the process, a key ingredient in the concoction. The nuance of mother-baby communication is shrouded in mystery: some part hormone, some part divine wisdom, then the work begins.

I marvel at the miracle in the waiting: there’s a secret conversation between mama-body and baby-body, “Are we ready yet? Baked, prepped, fueled?” Until then, we wait, nourish, and prepare.

This time I’m waiting and preparing in a different way. My sister is adopting a little boy from Uganda, and I will join her for the journey across the ocean to meet a new nephew and bring him to his new home. There are no Braxton Hicks this time, no back pain, cramps, or leaking fluid to signal a slow and steady start. There’s just a cold, quiet phone. She turns up the ringer, goes to bed, and wakes up hoping for the call. The watched pot never boiling, she stokes the flame of her hope for a child not yet her own. She waits with agony and disbelief that these wheels will grind into motion, the court date will be set, and the final stretch of the journey will begin. She waits with grace and patience, recognizing the cry of the orphan reverberating in her own heart. Compassion wells up within, and her heart expands.

My heart expands with hers, and in this waiting, I glimpse God’s upside-down Kingdom in which peace is power and cast-offs are treasured above all. I taste the redemptive power of love and humility, the courage of stepping out to answer God’s call.

Each day without a baby is another day brimming with agonizing hope. Wait. Hold space. The child will come. Searching for God in the space, I notice the trust that can grow in the soft soil of surrender. I tune into the mysterious communication between God and our everyday lives.

God, the midwife, holding space, reassuring us that we are safe and equipped for hard work: to live in love and wait with hope as we allow our lives to unfold into new life.

I am humbled by the unknown, the mysteries, and I hope toward redemption and abiding love. I light a candle, string a bead, and hope for God’s unlikely Kingdom brought full into this moment through my watchfulness, my faithfulness.
And in waiting, hoping, catching my breath, I see how very honored I am to live within a Kingdom of Hope.

Let us pray:

God, please give me eyes to see your Kingdom of Hope, your promise of new life and abiding love, even as I surrender to waiting and holding space for the unknown.

SusanSmarttCookSusan currently lives with her dear husband and black lab in Edmond, OK where she attends St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. On any given day you will find Susan nurturing her small midwifery practice, her kitchen, and next year’s garden. Her hope for this advent is to be quiet, to reach deep into the soil of her soul with the tangled roots of her faith, and to find there the living water that nourishes new hope, love, joy, and peace into bloom.

There’s been a lot of fuss over this royal baby this week hasn’t there been?

When would the Duchess give birth?

What gender would the child be?

When would they leave the hospital?

How would the new family get home?

And, finally what would the child’s name be?

Even if you haven’t been royal obsessed, it has been hard to avoid all of the sentimentality about the birth.

I was at the gym on Monday afternoon when all the TV stations broke their regularly scheduled programing to tell us all, “It is a boy!”

When Kevin came home from meetings on Capital Hill on Monday night, his first statement to me was “Did you hear about the birth?” Apparently all (but one) of the Congressional offices he visited posted congratulatory signs on their doors to Will and Kate. (Seriously do we live in Great Britain? Really?? I digress.)

Furthermore, the story blew up twitter this afternoon—all the commentary about this special boy’s name: George . . . just as it had done on Monday afternoon when a clergy colleague of mine tweeted, Kate Middleton, 1; Anne Boleyn, O. (I couldn’t help but laugh).

Commentators have spent lots of time talking about the great expectations for this baby Prince: how the hopes and dreams of the nation lie on his shoulders.

All this talk has got me thinking about another baby. A baby we don’t talk much about this time of year.

A baby worshiped as king by some wise guys, but such adoration was not followed by cameras tracking his first coos and burps.

A baby celebrated by the songs of angels, but a without even a proper blanket or place to lay his head.

Sure, you might say: "Why did you have to spoil all our 'royal fun' by bring in that baby?

The truth be told I can’t get the comparison of the two out of my head.

For as crowds cheer at the sight of Prince George and as a designer sells out of dresses similar to that which Kate wore out of the hospital on Monday, I have to think of the other baby.

THE baby who came into this world and lived among us as a commoner, the baby who would not grow up in a palace, and the baby who would face the kind of hardship in his growing up years that royal types like him might not be able to ever imagine.

I think of the baby that would grow up to say, "Those who want to be greatest among us must be last . . . and those who are last will be first."

I think of our modern world’s obsession with prince and princesses and celebrities, and any competition television show that will make us famous.

And in comparison I think of that baby, the baby who appeared in this world without pomp and circumstance among the adoring masses, but in the greatest posture of love.

And in of this, I can’t help but be reminded of moments in my own life when the royalty of God has shone the brightest. Not when I've brushed shoulders with a famous person like the time I saw Katie Holmes walking a NYC street, or when I had my picture made with the basketball star, Shaq at a fundraiser . . .

But, when I've been in remote villages, such as in the Philippines where voices of children made a desolate space beautiful. A time when I visited a family in the hollers of West Virginia, where a trailer became a sanctuary of prayer. A time when I was welcomed by friends at an all-African American church-- a church that loved me and nurtured my calling even though my skin color could have made me an outsider.

The royal baby is great and all (and I truly wish Will and Kate all the best!), but maybe for those of us who seek to follow in the footsteps of another royal baby born over 2000 years ago, the place for our hearts and minds to dwell are in places far, far away from the babies born in privilege and power.

For as followers of this one called Jesus, we are children of a different kind of royal king.

Luke 1: 57-66 (CEB)

57When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”

61They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.”62Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.

63After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.”64At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.

65All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.

Earlier in Luke chapter one, we read that Zechariah was serving his tour of duty of a lifetime in the temple making the offering in the Holy of Holy place. And, it was in the temple that he heard the word of the Lord that was unthinkable to him: he was going to have a son.

According to Jewish tradition at the time, it was expected that the first-born son would carry on the family tradition by receiving the surname of his father.

But, this would not be; for, as unusual as the circumstances of the birth were (Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past childbearing years), the name would be just as unusual. The angel Gabriel said the baby would be named John which means "God has been gracious." And, nine months later came this babe.

So, according to Mosaic law, on the 8th day of life, when the circumcision was to take place, this surprising name choice was made known in the neighborhood too. For when Elizabeth said the baby's name was to be John and Zechariah affirmed the choice, the neighbors who had come to celebrate with them in this ritual practice were surprised. Probably saying something like: "What are they thinking bucking tradition in this manner?" as verse 61 (NSRV) records the response of the onlookers probably spoken in an accusatory tone to this new family of three, "None of your relatives has this name. [John]."

And not only was the actual community surprised at Elizabeth's childbearing abilities and the name given, but the prophecy declared over this newborn child's life.

Verse 66 says about the babe, "for the Lord's hand was with him." And, at this time in scripture history, you just didn't say that about anybody.

For even more than usual,  God was in this birth as answer to prayers like none other. Baby John was called out to play a crucial role in salvation history though the details of it all would be determined over time.

So with the surprise of all of this intact, what does the story say was the response?  Seems like a silly question doesn't it because surprises usually make people happy, make people want to go out of their houses skipping, or make one break out into song like they are living in a musical, right?

But if we consider the full context of Zechariah, this fellow had every reason not to be joyful about this surprise.

Sure, it was great that he finally held that son in his arms that he'd be hoping for. But, in his elder years, if his left brain was turned on, he knew that he probably was not going to live long enough to see his son do all the things every father hoped to experience with his child.  It might have been too old to watch John learn how to throw or chop wood or say words from the Torah by himself much less gotten married. And so Zechariah, could have said, "God if you had just brought me this blessing just a little bit sooner, THEN, I could be happy about it. But, now, I just can't."

Also, Zechariah could have been a poor looser about the choice of name. He finally gets the son he had dreamed about having for years and he doesn't get to name him after himself.  John would not be "marked" as his according to culture, no one would have automatically known he was Zechariah's child. And, so Zechariah could have barked at God saying: "Ok God, don't expect me to happy about it."

And, furthermore, Zechariah, like any proud dad, could have refused celebration because his son was not THE one, God's choose servant-- the Emmanuel God with us that they had all been hoping and praying would arrive. Just like any baseball coach dad or soccer mom, whose son is good but not that good to play on the all-stars team, Zechariah could have complained: "I am glad John is here, but I am not going to thank you for him because, you could have given me more. If you were going to all the trouble to bring about this one miraculously, why could not have my boy been the Messiah?"

But instead of being so uptight and self-seeking in exactly what kind of blessing that God needed to bring him, Zechariah took the path not so widely traveled called joy.

He accepted what he has been given as good. He didn't cling so much to the lost dreams of the past so that he couldn't take in this blessing. And, ultimately he allowed God to bless him so that there was nothing left to do but to sing for joy.

As I read and re-read the words of this Psalm known formally as the Benedictus which follows, what I couldn't help but notice is that the description was not about Zechariah. It wasn't about his son, funny name or not.

And it wasn't about the neighbors who came to coo and woo at the baby. This song of proclamation of a birth was not about any of the typical things you'd expect a first time dad to shout about.

Rather, the joy that Zechariah just had to proclaim was about God.

It was about how God had remembered a people who long thought they were forgotten.

It was about how faith in God could connect the past to the present.

It was about being so full of thanksgiving for God's presence that he just couldn't be held back.

How easy it is this time of year to think that joy comes in packages, that joy comes in the perfect holiday parties or the perfect family memories, but what if we allowed ourselves like Zechariah to be surprised for how the ways of joy led us too?

No matter what we see on the surface of our lives, joy can find us. It can find us if our Christmas tree is big and beautiful or if it looks like Charlie Brown's.

Joy can find us if we bake cookies or we eat store-bought ones.

Joy can find us if we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" for the 20th time or boycott tv altogether.

Joy is not about this season and all its gifts, joy ultimately is about God: the One who gives us hope that our life is greater than just what we see or can even understand right now.

So where are the corners of joy in your life that need to be uncovered? No matter what is going on in your life. No matter how difficult some circumstances are. No matter how out of hope you feel, I know deep down somewhere there is joy to be let loose for God is with us. And so, surprise, joy can find even you!