Word of the Week

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4-6

Today, many churches in their worship services will hear this passage from Romans in which Paul encourages his audience to live in harmony and with one voice glorify God. Yay Church! Crank up the alleluias. What if, though, the one voice glorifying God is not sweet and happy-clappy? What if the voice is more like the groaning mentioned in Romans 8:22, the moaning of labor pains, as we wait for the revealing of the children of God?

It was with such groaning that my wife, Sarah, and I waited for the revealing of our unborn son. This was our fourth and final pregnancy (see December 5th post) and things were going well. Our previous three pregnancies had been relatively smooth, so we felt confident. Then came our mid-term ultrasound, two days after Easter Sunday.

We knew something was wrong. The doctor and technician were giving each other intense looks. Finally they showed us into a consult room and gave us the news: spina bifida. Our unborn son had a neural tube defect. His spine was partially open, resulting in a dangling, vulnerable skin sack of fluid and nerves. They told us he might not walk. He might not be able to control his bowel and bladder functions. He might need a shunt placed in his brain to divert fluid. Our confidence vanished. We had lost our second child in infancy to a heart defect. Now it felt like lightning had struck us twice. Ironically, I had just preached about moving from loss to new life. That gospel was easy to proclaim on Easter morning. Now the idea of new life emerging from this loss seemed like a cruel joke.

They tried to encourage us. 1500 children are born with spina bifida each year. It is not fatal. Doctors routinely perform spinal closures right after birth. In the last decade or so, surgeons have also developed a procedure before birth. They cut open the uterus (like a C-section), close the opening in the baby’s back, and restore the baby to the womb for another three months (although premature delivery is a significant risk). It sounded like science fiction. The whole thing felt unreal.

The short version of what happened is that we traveled from North Carolina to Philadelphia to have the fetal surgery. There were potential benefits that we hoped would make our son’s life better down the road. There were also significant risks for baby and mother. As I waited during the surgery, I took deep breaths. I held it together but was ready to fall apart. Thankfully, the surgery went well. The next three months were very difficult waiting, because there was always the chance something else would go wrong. Yet this “defect,” this weakness in our unborn child actually revealed some unknown strengths in us. We were not really ready to shout “Praise the Lord!” but we were deeply thankful.

Paul’s letter to the Romans addressed a community in which the weak and the strong may have been struggling to live in harmony. They were waiting for the return of Christ, waiting for the powerful empire to finally fall, waiting for Paul to visit with an encouraging word. They were holding it together but perhaps on the verge of falling apart. The defects in their common life were visible and difficult, thus making it hard to praise God together. He encourages them, though, to have hope, to stay in struggle together. In our Advent waiting, we are aware of so many defects turning our worlds upside down. It is a time to groan but not alone. Can we groan in harmony? Groan together like parents who are told their unborn child has a problem, that lots of things could go wrong, but that there is reason to hope and risk. Groan together as we prepare for the best and the worst case, also learning that strength can dance with weakness. Can we, this Advent, groan in unison, weak and strong, wondering whether God is ever going to come and remembering that God has always been.

Let us pray:

O God of steadfastness and encouragement, grant us to groan with one another, as we wait for Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice, in agony and relief, in weakness and strength, glorify you.    

JoeHensleyThe Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!).

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-24

Joseph, the “step-father” of Jesus, did as he was asked. Although she was already pregnant, Joseph took Mary as his wife. I have to wonder whether obedient Joseph was also afraid or nervous. The angel in his dream asked him to do something risky and impractical, something he would not have done on his own.

On my own, I would not have chosen to have another baby. For months, my wife, Sarah, and I had gone back and forth about whether to get pregnant again. I should say, rather, that we went back and forth about whether I was game. I had legitimate reasons to be hesitant (at least they felt that way to me). We had two wonderful children already, out of diapers and able to feed themselves and sleep through the night. Did we really want to go through the whole infancy process again? With three children, we would consume more energy (the minivan purchase was inevitable) and produce more waste. It would mean one more college tuition, etc. On a more intense note, our second child had died in infancy a few years before due to a heart defect. Although we had taken a leap of faith bringing our third child into the world, I worried that another child could mean another opportunity for tragedy. I also feared, given the stress of my job, the demands of family life, etc. that I would not have enough inner resources to handle being “outnumbered” by the children.

Sarah was very patient while I wrestled. For her this was less about decision-making and more of a discernment process. Something very deep inside her (and maybe beyond her) desired another child. Eventually I realized that the depth of that longing was more profound and mysterious than the shallowness of my fears. My fears were not illegitimate, but they had no soul.
Joseph could have dismissed Mary quietly, the scripture says. He would have been within his rights to do so. He had good reasons. His dreamtime visit from the angel, though, convinced him to take a more mysterious path, to wait in hope that this impossible pregnancy was actually part of God’s plan. I could have dismissed my wife’s desire for another baby, but it just happened to be Advent. I was hearing the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary and angelic visitations. I kept running into references to pregnancy and trust. Something deeper than my fear whispered, “Do not fear.” Without any planning, we got pregnant again.

So began the wait for our next child. My impossible hope was not that the baby would come (I trusted that would happen) but that I would be ready. Although I had taken the leap of faith, I was not convinced that I would be able to handle the journey. Surely Joseph had also wondered, “can I do this?” even though he did what he was told?

As I watched Sarah’s body expand, I waited for confirmation to grow that I would have what I needed. In many ways that sense developed in me like an unborn, unseen child. There were signs that it was happening, signs of grace growing slowly. It was not morning sickness exactly, but there were mornings where I found myself awakened early by my anxieties only to have those fears be surrounded by a strange peace in the quiet darkness.

As we wait for Christ, we wonder if we will be able to welcome him when he arrives. We fear he may ask the impossible of us. We are hesitant to say ‘yes.’ The messengers of God, though, are speaking to our hearts, telling us not to be afraid, encouraging us to wait and be obedient as impossible faith takes form.

Let us pray:
O God  
who knew us before we were born, you believe in us before we believe in ourselves. Send messengers to us to remind us that your power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Grant us to accept your invitation to care for the unborn faith growing in our hearts as we wait for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


The Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!).

“Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’”
Matthew 1:19-21

I had a mix of joy and dread as I waited for our son to be born. It’s not that I didn’t want a son. I just feared that I would somehow screw things up. I also couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a father.

When I thought of having a baby, I couldn’t see how the details would all work. Having a child, in many respects, is a leap of faith. We say yes to this great unknown without any guarantees about what the future will look like or how our lives will change.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions where we anticipate future failures, future conflict, and future regret.

All of these anticipated failures made up enough scenes in my mind to fill up several made for television movies.

In the months that followed the birth of our son, I’ve often meditated on the story of Joseph, the Father of Jesus, who had to take one of the larger leaps of faith. I found someone I could relate to in Joseph, even if our stories diverged in many ways.

Having children is both normal and a dramatic leap of faith. I think we forget that because it’s so common. However, when you’re in the middle of it, the anticipation can be kind of maddening. You’re forced to confront all of your inadequacies and insecurities. You’re going to be completely responsible for this tiny little person.

I can only imagine the pressure that Joseph felt.

He was put in charge of an extraordinary child and included in God’s plan of salvation.


Mess this up, and there won’t be any Messiah for Israel. No biggie.

Where did Joseph find the strength to take this enormous leap of faith? How did he choose to sacrifice his reputation and take a risk that Mary was really telling the truth?

He didn’t.

While Joseph was going to be nice enough about the whole thing and we get the sense that he truly did care for Mary, he didn’t have the faith or strength to take on this enormous unknown of becoming the father of the supposed Messiah. It took divine intervention.

Joseph didn’t seek out God’s help. God practically chased him down, waiting to pounce while he was sleeping. It took a visit from an angel to assure Joseph about what he had to do.

That’s reassuring to me.

Sometimes the “heroes” of our faith seem larger than life, taking bold risks that we could never see ourselves making. We get discouraged when our day to day struggles weigh us down.

I felt terribly guilty and awful and inadequate with all of my fear about becoming a father.

Shouldn’t I want to be a father?

I did, but I also feared it mightily.

God didn’t chase me down in my dreams, but he kept placing me in the company of friends who cared enough to ask how I was doing and to pray for me when I told them I wasn’t doing all that great.

It took these prayers around a kitchen table or while taking a walk down our street to prepare me for fatherhood. That leap into parenthood felt like the biggest challenge of my life. In retrospect, I found that my friends passed along God’s strength to far it with courage and to rejoice in my new role as a parent responsible for a little boy.

I wouldn’t change anything about my life today, and a big part of that is because God healed the fear that held me down through the prayers of others.

That serves as a reminder that when I face another leap of faith, there’s a good chance I won’t feel ready for it. In fact, I know I won’t be. I never was before.

EdCyzewskiLet us pray:

As we face the challenges of this day, Lord, help us to remember that you are always with us. Help us to take leaps into the unknown of waiting for what we cannot see.

Ed Cyzewski lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and son and attends a Vineyard congregation. He’s is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life and co-author of Unfollowers: Dropouts, Detractors, and Doubters of Jesus (WPH 2014). He writes at www.inamirrordimly.com.