Embracing Your Unresolved Story

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . . (Matt. 1:18-25). 

Whether in story or song, we yearn for resolution. We don’t always get it.

Some musical composers seem to delight in the discordant, regarding the unfinished sound as artistry. Some writers leave us wondering and guessing, regarding the jagged edges of the tale as closer to reality. They may be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ear and the mind instinctively seek resolution.

We want the chords to progress in such a way that we hear and feel the conclusion of the piece. We like for the varied plot-lines of the story to come together in such way that the fragments form a unified whole. ‘They lived happily ever after’ – that’s what we like to hear.

God in Loose Ends

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth lacks resolution. As we typically read it and hear it read, the story ends nicely enough with Joseph taking Mary as his wife. But while this ending is simple, it isn’t neat. Much is left untold.

The fall-out from the marriage remains a mystery. Joseph’s faithful obedience to God no doubt came with a price-tag. New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes that ‘Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.’ We never really see how this played out in Nazareth. Matthew tells us how Joseph and Mary settled there, but that’s it. We don’t know what life was like there. We never get the happily ever after ending.

However, there is one line in Matthew’s birth narrative that helps us make sense of what Joseph did when he awoke from that life-changing dream. When the Angel repeated the words that the prophet Isaiah had spoken long ago, Mary’s child was identified as Immanuel – ‘God with us.’ This truth is at the core of the Christmas story, and in some way it is at the core of our own stories as well – especially the messy stories, the stories that lack resolution and leave us groping about for what’s next.

The Power of ‘With’

The power of ‘with’ changes everything. God is present in the varied realities of this day, in all places and all circumstances. God with us in offices and malls, in gyms and courtrooms, on airplanes and on golf courses. God with us in health and illnesses, in heartache and in love.

In the birth of Jesus God keeps the promise made long ago through Isaiah: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’ (Isaiah 43:1-4). Our God is the God of ‘with.’

The power of ‘with’ tells us that God is not simply ‘above’: Aloof, distant, watching to see how we’ll manage and whether we’ll screw up. And it also tells us that God is not ‘against.’ The messy story you’re living right now is not punishment or revenge.

Endings yet Unseen

We tend to think that when God is with us, the story will always resolve. We sometimes doubt ‘God with us’ because if it were true, life would surely look differently than it does today. Joseph wouldn’t be risking his good name, devoting himself to an already-pregnant woman. And we too would be getting something other than we’ve got. But ‘God with us’ means that God enters fully into the life you have right now. And if God embraces your life, maybe you can embrace it too.

You can do the hard thing and accept the difficult reality – just as Joseph did.

And you can do it with deep peace and bold confidence, knowing that ultimately in all things God is working for your good. All things will one day resolve. Until then we, like Joseph, wake up each day and place our lives in God’s hands. We relinquish our claim to neat resolutions and fairy-tale endings and choose something better: Life with God. God with us.

How might the power of ‘with’ change how you live the day in front of you?


I will claim the Angel’s words to Joseph as your promise to me, O God. You are with us. In Jesus you entered fully into the experience of life and embraced it all. Because you are with us, we can do the same. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we might live fully in your presence today, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Looking for A Way Out

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream (Matt, 1:20, The Message)

We might have expected quick and decisive action from Joseph.

Anger and humiliation, mingled with grief and a sense of betrayal, do not make for slow and measured thinking. Upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy – and we are not told exactly how Joseph learned this – Joseph might have been inclined to do something immediately: Lash out, strike back, protect his name, exact retribution from the one harming him.

He didn’t do any of that. The reason is quite simple as best we can tell. He loved Mary. The biblical text tells us plainly that Joseph was a just or righteous man and he didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace.

If our emotions are sails that catch the wind and fury of our life experiences, then perhaps character is the rudder that guides the ship. So it was with Joseph. He didn’t do anything rash, nothing knee-jerk. He was thoughtful, maybe even reflective. When emotions run high this is hard to do.

Sleep On It

The NIV and ESV Bibles both say that Joseph’s plan for a quiet divorce from Mary was a ‘considered’ course of action, not merely an act of retaliation. Eugene Peterson’s helpful modern translation, The Message, says that Joseph was ‘looking for a way out.’ It paints a picture of a man thinking through his options, searching for the best when every choice was awful, nothing good to be found.

And then he slept. We know this because the ‘way out’ came from an angel who appeared in Joseph’s dream. There’s something to be said for that old piece of wisdom. Sometimes the best thing we can do when we don’t know what to do is ‘sleep on it.’

When you sleep you are dormant, inactive and still. And with you still, God can move in a powerful way.

Grace Begins Where You End

The story of Joseph offers encouragement to all who overwhelmed with life: facing formidable decisions or trying to sort out perplexing circumstances. Joseph’s story provides a slight glimmer of hope for any and all who feel stuck, unable to see the next step or dreading the next step that seem to be the only way to go.

Don’t rush to action. Pray, think, consider. And after you’ve done that – sleep on it.

This is not to say that an angel will appear in your dream. And this is not an excuse for passive neglect or inaction. This is a simply a word of hope. There is a way forward. There is a way out. There is grace to be found.

But sometimes grace begins where you end. Wait on the Lord and take the words of the angel to heart. Do not be afraid.


Bring us to the end of ourselves, O God, that we might find the grace we need in these days. Guard us from thoughtless and rash action; help us to think well and pray deeply as we seek to follow you in every aspect of our living. Come and show us the way – for whatever we face. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Basics of Beholding (don’t make it harder than it is)

 . . . Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us (Luke 2:15)

From time to time here in the northeast I’ll get a remark about my southern accent. To be honest, I just can’t hear it. My accent, that is.

The comments are always polite, sometimes even inquisitive. The underlying message is some version of ‘You’re not from around here are you?’ Should the conversation go any further I’ll casually explain that my family moved to Bethlehem from Atlanta. Whether people say it out loud or not (and it has been said out loud) they’ll look at me as if to say, ‘Why in the world did you do that?’

‘Why did you come to Bethlehem?’ That’s a fair question, leaving me with a menu of possible responses.

If I’m feeling bold and blunt, I’ll simply tell them that I’m a pastor and I came to Bethlehem to serve a church. The mention of ‘pastor’ and ‘church’ is the verbal equivalent of dousing the conversation with cold water. If I don’t want to do that, I might use the widely accepted and less threatening ‘job opportunity’ answer. Both of those are true but there’s more to be said. And it’s tough to explain a ‘call from God’ in a casual conversation with someone you don’t know.

Add to all the above one very simple factor that explains our coming to Bethlehem: We were invited. We could have never considered coming if we had not been invited.

Come Ye, O Come Ye

An invitation lies at the heart of one of our most familiar and much-loved Christmas hymns. The very first line extends the invitation: ‘O Come all Ye Faithful.’ As the opening verse unfolds the invitation becomes increasingly specific. We hear that all the faithful are being invited to come to Bethlehem, and they (we) are invited for a singular purpose: ‘Come and behold him.’

The hymn summons us to Bethlehem to behold, to see, to look upon the king concealed in infancy.

But the invitation doesn’t stop there. In the refrain of the hymn a different word appears and the invitation changes. Now we are not simply invited to behold this child, we are invited to adore him. This is what gets repeated. ‘O Come Let Us Adore Him.’

At first that might sound like two distinct or separate invitations. Come and behold. Come and adore. They sound different, but they’re not. What we’re hearing, or singing as it were, is one invitation. Beholding and adoring are not quite synonymous, but they are inextricably connected.

When we truly behold Jesus, we will adore or worship him. And there won’t be any true worship of Jesus until we see him, really see who he is and what he ‘s like.

What This Means for Us

What does this mean for us? How do we respond to this invitation to behold and adore?

Our imaginations don’t have any problem picturing those shepherds, rushing to Bethlehem in the aftermath of the angelic announcement, peering with reverence into the manger. Their beholding required a short commute, but the rest was simple. Look and see. Behold.

Things are a little different for us. James Bryan Smith, in his book The Good and Beautiful God, maintains that the we see and behold Jesus by reading the Gospels. We behold Jesus by opening the Bible, listening to his words, watching what he does.

Maybe at Christmas you’re accustomed to hearing the story that Luke so memorably tells us. You might even read it as a part of your family’s Christmas observance. Here’s a suggestion for the remainder of Advent. Try reading a little bit further into one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Go beyond Luke 2 and behold, look, listen.

Let Jesus outgrow his manger. Take a good look at who he is and what he did. My hope is that as you behold, you’ll begin to truly admire and adore Jesus.

And one more thing. There’s so much in this season of the year that keeps us from beholding him. The varied expectations and demands we juggle are not friendly to beholding Jesus. Like the shepherds, we’ll have to be intentional about doing this. ‘Let’s go and see.’

Beholding Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. Nothing in the next ten days could be more important. And nothing will be more easily neglected.

So here’s your invitation to Bethlehem. Come and behold him. It will require some effort, but it isn’t hard to do. And it’s never too late.


Gracious God, we would respond eagerly to your invitation to come and behold. We pray for eyes that are open to seeing your son and hearts that are ready to worship him, fragile infant and King of angels, through whom we offer our prayer. Amen.

When You Don’t Feel Favored

But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:26-33)

Some of you woke up this morning feeling anything but favored.

Favored means that things are going your way. Life is working according to plan. Forget the plan – favored means riding high on a wave of unplanned and unexpected blessings. Everything is falling into the ‘w’ column. That’s what favored folks look like and that’s not you. At least not today. Not right now.

You could be greeting the day feeling frustrated and forgotten, bored with the same old stuff or burdened with new stuff you never saw coming.

The job came down to you and another candidate. You weren’t hired.

You thought you needed a simple oil change. Turns out you need far more than that, or so you’re told.

For months you’ve been looking forward to attending a family wedding. Weather forces widespread fight cancellations. You won’t get there in time.

My daughter loves a cooking show in which chefs are presented with a basket of random ingredients and given thirty minutes to make an appetizer, entrée, or dessert. The chefs present their dishes to a panel of judges who taste and evaluate what was prepared. The chef who didn’t quite measure up is told, “You’ve been chopped.” Getting chopped is the opposite of being favored.

The favored win. The favored are applauded. And right now, you’re not hearing any applause.

A Disruptive Favor
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he did not address her by name, at least not initially. His opening line named her ‘favored one.’ A careful reading of Gabriel’s words has him using the proper name Mary only once. The word ‘favor’ shows up twice. She is called ‘favored’ and told that she has ‘found favor’ with God. The same Greek root shows up in both of those words.

The detail that strikes me as a little unusual in Mary’s story is her response to God’s favor. Mary the favored one is troubled at Gabriel’s greeting. After Gabriel’s first attempt at an explanation, Mary still has questions. What she is told didn’t seem to land with her as favorable. Her life was being interrupted in a way that few would applaud. God’s favor would demand much of Mary. Her obedience would be costly. God’s favor comes to Mary as something disturbing, perplexing, confusing.

Simply put, as Mary tries to understand what God is doing in her life, she probably doesn’t feel favored. And this brings us to one of the most significant things we can take away from Mary’s example of faithfulness: Favored isn’t a feeling.

If we try to define God’s favor by how we feel, or if we search for it by tallying a scorecard of pleasant v. painful circumstances, we might miss the favor that God intends for us to know and experience.

Favored’ Might Mean You
Of course, God is the giver of every good gift. When things are going well, and blessings flow our way fast and freely, we are right to see God as the source of all that we enjoy. We might say we feel God’s pleasure. We sense his favor upon us.

But God doesn’t show his favor by giving us what we want or by making sure that everything breaks our way. God’s favor is experienced as he works through us to accomplish his work in this world. As we listen to Gabriel’s words to Mary, we notice that God’s favor is closely connected to God’s presence. ‘The Lord is with you.’ To be surrounded by God’s presence and used for his purposes. This is the Lord’s favor.

You might not find that encouraging today. That’s not to say you don’t believe it. But you take little comfort from it. At the very least be sure of this as you move through this day and days to come. God’s favor can be found in the hard things that you don’t understand, the surprises you never sought or asked for, the path that leads to something you cannot see.

What are you dealing with that makes it hard for you to sense God’s favor? Remember, ‘favored one’ might mean you, whether you feel it or not.

Let Mary’s faithful response to your favor be ours, O God. We are your servants. Do your will in us and through us. Save us from the tyranny of what we feel from day to day. Help us to know your favor by being a part of your saving work and walking in your presence, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Incarnation in Oklahoma

And the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus promised that he would build his church. I have no doubt that Jesus has kept and is keeping his promise, but along the way he’s had some help. One of the co-builders of Jesus’ church in Oklahoma is Kenneth.

The first church I ever served started as a group of people meeting in a school cafeteria. That probably explains how I came to be their pastor as a second-year seminary student. All the other “real” pastors were already at “real” churches. As it happened this small congregation had some land, and after I had been with them for about a year, they were ready to start building on that land. Forget about capital campaigns and master plans. We would do this job ourselves, as much as we could.

Thanks to Kenneth, that meant we would be able to do a respectable share of the work.

Overalls and a Red Pick-Up
As best I could tell, there wasn’t anything that Kenneth couldn’t do or make or fix. When my hand-me-down Olds Cutlass began to strain under the weekly trip from Fort Worth to Ardmore, Kenneth rebuilt the engine. If I lived in Ardmore, Oklahoma today I’d probably be driving that car right now. Well . . . maybe not. But you get my point.

There were a few tasks here and there where Kenneth needed some back-up. Newt came over from Duncan and ran wiring through the building. A concrete mixer and crew came in and poured the foundation. And some roofing contractors did the roof as I recall. But I’m not exaggerating too much when I say that Kenneth built that church. What he couldn’t do alone he reluctantly allowed others to do. Many of us helped when we could, but Kenneth was always the foreman.

And he was always in overalls. My mind’s eye will forever see his ’72 red Ford pick-up and his white t-shirt beneath denim overalls.

Kenneth never wore those overalls to worship. Jeans, maybe. Never a tie. He and Dorothy were rock-solid faithful when it came to Sundays. I sit here trying to visualize where they sat – back left it seems. I’m not sure really. I just know they were there.

Tough Hands, Tender Heart
But Kenneth’s love for Christ and Christ’s church didn’t find its fullest or best expression on Sunday mornings. It was expressed on Saturdays and any other day when there was work to be done that required the use of the ’72 Ford pick-up and the denim overalls. That’s how Kenneth loved Jesus. That’s how he loved all of us.

When God showed his love to us by sending Jesus, he loved us in a way that reminds me of Kenneth. The denim overalls crowd takes center stage in the Advent / Christmas story. The shepherds were not likely lounging in those fields in silk. The Bethlehem birth and the cave where it took place were removed from the temple precincts and the clergy types who spent all their time tending to the routines of sacrifice and worship. And as time drew near to make way for the Messiah, John the Baptizer lived a hardscrabble life clad in animal skin. We’re not missing the mark when we say that love came to us in denim overalls. I know without a doubt that for nearly five years of my life it came to me that way.

During the Advent season you may read or hear that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). When you read or hear that be sure to see the flesh as calloused. See some dirt under the nails. That’s the kind of flesh that first showed up to worship Mary’s child.

And when that child became a man, a carpenter, that’s the kind of flesh he had. Tough hands and a tender heart. Hands pierced or our salvation.

We give you thanks, O God, for the way you came to us, for the way you took on flesh and embraced every part of our existence. We thank you for the kind of love that trades in lofty language for deeds of humble service. Empower us to love that way, finding opportunities and places where can imitate your incarnate love to us in Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Bitter in Bethlehem

And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19-21). 

There’s something about this season of the year that stirs our memories, evoking a certain kind of nostalgia.

For me it’s a collection of photos that we display in our house every Christmas. Since our son’s very first Christmas at the age of eleven months we’ve managed to get a Santa photo every year. Little sister shows up in picture # 2 and then I can watch the years roll by with every photo that follows. So far that’s a collection of twenty photos. They may be getting tired of it, but my big kids still humor us and sit with Santa long enough for a picture. I’m hoping that secretly they like it as much as I do.

Those photos tell me where we lived at the time and what Christmas was like at that season of our life. I’m sobered by the passing of time and my failure to know back then how swiftly it was moving by me. So many things surround us these days that can send our thoughts back to what was: an ornament, a song, a favorite food, a tradition you still carry on but in a different way.

Sometimes these fleeting detours to Christmas past are a good thing. But sometimes they’re not. Like Scrooge, we’re haunted by what was or left yearning for it in the knowledge that we’ll never get it back. We remember Christmases before the funeral or divorce; days when the kids still lived at home or could easily get home; times when holiday plans were far less complicated and so were the family dynamics.

We look back to a better time, or so we think.

Call Me ‘Mara’
Naomi had left Bethlehem years ago, but not long enough to be forgotten in that small town. Those were the famine days. The hardships of a bad economy and the scarcity of food had forced her family to leave the place they knew, the place where they were known. With her husband and two sons Naomi had gone to make a life in the country of Moab.

After a while her husband Elimelech died. In the tenth year of life in Moab both of those sons also died, leaving Naomi widowed with two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi had no reason to stay in Moab and news of a better economy in Judah made it seem right to return home to Bethlehem.

One daughter-in-law stayed in Moab. The other, Ruth, insisted on staying with Naomi.

When they returned to Bethlehem it took a while before anyone recognized her. Her face had been changed by the passing of years and the heaviness of grief. Old neighbors would pass her on the road or in the market. The first glance brought surprise. The second gave confirmation. Naomi was back. Everyone was whispering the same question: “Can this be Naomi?”

Naomi, bereft of her husband and sons, answered their question: “Don’t call me Naomi – call me ‘Mara.’ God has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (1:20-21). Naomi had known Bethlehem in better times. All she seemed to have now was bitterness inflicted upon her from God. She allowed that bitterness to define her. ‘Mara’ (bitter) was her new name.

Bethlehem’s Other Baby
Naomi and Ruth had made the journey from Moab back to Bethlehem, but for Naomi she would never truly be able to go home. Bethlehem was different now. At one time she had lived there in fullness. But that time was gone, and now she had come back to emptiness.
In Bethlehem yesterday was far more than tomorrow ever could be.

But what Naomi could not see was this: God was still very much at work in Bethlehem – and not just the Bethlehem of yesterday. In any given moment, in any and every circumstance, God is doing far more than we know.

There in Bethlehem another baby would be born. Ruth would find a husband by the name if Boaz. Naomi would become the grandmother of a baby named Obed. Obed would be the father of Jesse. Jesse would be the father of David. And from the line of David would come Jesus the Messiah. Naomi was at the heart of a divine drama, a God-authored story she could scarcely imagine.

Don’t let your nostalgia keep you from missing out on that story. Treasure your memories and name your regrets. But don’t look back to Christmas past because you’re so deeply disappointed with Christmas present. The familiar story we tell every year isn’t merely history. It’s unfolding even now, and you’re invited to have a role.

The birth of Jesus means God with us – right here and right now. This place, this day, this Christmas.

Guard us, O God, from retreating to our past simply to escape our present. Remind us today that you are doing more than we know, more than we see. Make us expectant, eagerly waiting for your work among us in this time and place, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Less Than Ideal Christmas

So Joseph also went up from Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem the town of David . . . (Luke 2:1-7).

She had every reason to be irritable. Add to that irritability a measure of resentment. None of it should surprise us.

Nearing the end of her pregnancy, the last thing she ever planned to do was take a long trip away from home, away from the familiarities of her house and the company of her neighbors. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about ninety miles. They would cover a little over fifteen miles each day. Making that six-day trip to Bethlehem was not merely inconvenient for Mary. It was potentially dangerous for her unborn child. This just isn’t what you do when you’re only days away from having your first baby.

From what we know about Mary, her disposition was not inclined to complain or whine. She had an unusual capacity for yielding herself to whatever came her way, making space for God to do his will in her life (Luke 1:38). There was no one to blame for what was happening. The trip to Bethlehem was hardly Joseph’s idea. The government had issued a decree that everyone should report to their hometown for a census. This was the law and it wasn’t up for vote or discussion.

And so the young couple packed what they needed and made their way to Bethlehem. Probably the last place they wanted to be.

What Does ‘Favor’ Look Like?
There’s nothing ordinary about the story of Mary and how she came to ‘be with child’ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The news of this came to her by the appearance of a messenger from God, the angel Gabriel. Making the long trip to Bethlehem, with plenty of time to think, Mary might have recalled two things that were said to her.

She was told that she had found favor with God. And she was told that the Lord was with her. Given what Mary had been chosen to do those were two realities of which she would need to be certain. God’s favor and God’s presence. Hearing that from an angel was probably quite persuasive. At least for a while.

But now here she was, nearing the day when her baby would be born, displaced and uprooted. Entirely against her will she was on the road and on her feet. This doesn’t sound or feel like God’s favor. If God was with her, why was this happening? In my mind, God’s favor should translate into a life that charts steadily up and to the right. God’s favor and presence mean that things will break my way.

But perhaps God’s favor and our ease have very little to do with each other; they are not the same thing. If we understood this and truly believed it, our expectations and experience of Christmas would change dramatically.

Bethlehem Then and Now
Every year most of us enter the Christmas season with a silently held vision of the ideal Christmas. Whether we say it aloud or not, we dream of smooth and safe travels, gatherings filled with laughter, no one fighting a cold or the flu, gifts perfectly selected and joyfully received, a beautiful dusting of snow free of wintry mix and slippery roads.

But rarely do we get the ideal Christmas, even when the Christmas we get is very good. The first Christmas in Bethlehem is a powerful reminder to us that God comes to be with us in places and circumstances that are less than ideal.

The physical demands of a long trip were far less desirable than being at rest. The borrowed make-do accommodations were nothing like being at home. Most parents plan something better for their baby than a manger for a bed.

Maybe in this first week of Advent you’re already dealing with some things that are far less than ideal. Family tensions, financial burdens, health challenges, work-place stress – any and all of these can get in the way of the ideal Christmas. But God comes to be with us in the life we have right now, not the life we wish we had. Those circumstances you resent won’t change the truth of Christmas. God insists on entering the places and things we’d be glad to avoid or escape.

That’s what we learn in Bethlehem, then and now.

Gracious God, we yearn for the perfect Christmas, when what we truly need is you – your presence with us in the less than ideal details of our life. So come in this season of Advent and meet us in the stories we are living in these days. And teach us the truth of the Christmas story: God with us. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sometimes You Wonder

Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? (Matthew 11:1-3)

If gratitude and hope languish in the in-between, our doubts and questions often flourish there. Living in the in-between has a way of slowly eroding our faith.

There in the ‘land between’ we start to wonder. We wonder what went wrong. We wonder what’s next. We wonder why me, or just as often, why not me. We wonder if our prayers are heard and if matters whether we pray at all. We wonder about God – does God know, and if so, does God care?

Yes, it is possible to live in the in-between with thankfulness and hope, but you may struggle to do it. No less was true of John the Baptist.

Are You the One?
John the Baptist may the greatest figure in the Bible that I don’t want to be like.

I hold John in the highest esteem. I admire his in-your-face preaching, the way he called people to repentance and challenged the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. I’m envious of his ability to draw a crowd. I’m impressed with his humble refusal to let people confuse him with the coming Messiah. John came as a witness and only a witness. He knew it and he made sure others knew it as well.

I love the story of John the Baptist right up to the very end. His execution in Herod’s prison doesn’t sit well with me. I think the man deserved better.

John, ever the faithful preacher, had the guts to publicly denounce Herod’s marriage. Herodius (yes, that’s her name) had been married to Philip, Herod’s brother. John was bold to declare to Herod, “it is not lawful for you to have her” (Mark 6:18). That sermon landed John in prison. Most pastors today who undertake to address the topic of marriage work hard not to offend. John could not have cared less.

Herod’s wife bore a particular animosity toward John. When Herod got loose-lipped and made a careless promise at a dinner party, she seized the opportunity to demand John’s execution. Herod complied rather than be humiliated in front of his buddies. Thus a godly and courageous man met his end at an executioner’s sword, his head bandied about like a trophy.

Before the execution, as John sat in prison, a question began to fester in his mind. It grew to a point where John commissioned two of his followers and sent them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one? Have I gotten this all wrong? Should we be expecting someone else?”

What We Need to Hear
This time in prison may have been the truest in-between season in John’s life. Sure, there was that time spent in the desert before he began his public ministry. But sitting in prison, perhaps chained and isolated, John found himself stripped of his calling. There in prison – time on his hands, no one to baptize, no crowd to preach to – there a seedling doubt took root. That’s not surprising really.

Sometimes we wonder. And we probably wonder most when we’re living in-between.

Jesus answered John’s question and addressed his nagging doubt by saying something that we need to hear. “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cured and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and good news is preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:4-5). Those are words from Isaiah 35. Jesus is claiming a messianic identity, basically assuring John that God is at work. Don’t despair John. You had it right all along. Prison doesn’t change what’s true.

That’s the message to which we keep coming back. That’s the message we cling to as we make our way through the in-between stretches of our life. Somewhere, somehow God is working.

But sometimes we do wonder.

If you’re wondering today, you’re in good company. Even John had to ask, had to get his question out there and seek some reassurance. Jesus will not condemn your wondering. So go ahead and ask. But let someone else, maybe someone like me, remind you of what’s happening even when you can’t see it.

God is still working. Hang on to that in the in-between.

Grant us, O God, by the gift and presence of your Holy Spirit, a deep assurance that you are always working. Even in our worst and wondering moments, you are saving and making whole – somewhere, somehow. Today we will embrace this truth confidently in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Gratitude and Hope (and hanging on to both)

. . . a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven (John 3:25-27).

So here we are, living a brief stretch of days between gratitude and hope.

You may be living in-between in other ways too. It seems that so much of life is transition. The chemo treatments have ended, but you’re waiting on the next scan to know how they worked. You’ve graduated, but you don’t have a job. You’ve sold and closed on your home, but you’re still looking for the right place in the new city to which you’ve moved. The nine months of anticipation have ended, and the baby has arrived, but you don’t feel like a ‘real parent’ and you’re worried you’re doing it all wrong.

There are so many ways and so many days that are spent in-between, moving from what was to what will be. There’s no map for this journey, no clearly marked way to get from what’s behind to what’s before. Life in-between is largely a matter of getting up every morning and doing what’s in front of us. Such days school us in waiting and in trust, things that don’t come naturally to many of us.

Let’s acknowledge that not all transitions are burdensome or painful. There are some we welcome gladly, even when we know that we’ll have to navigate some challenges. Our difficulties come with those in-between stretches that seem to have no end in sight. The disorienting interval that turns into a wilderness.

It is here, in these barren in-between places, that we often lose our perspective. These places have a way of robbing us of our sense of thankfulness and our sense of hope.

Another Yet to Come
We got started yesterday by noting the place of John the Baptist in the large scope of the biblical story. John stands as a bridge figure, occupying a unique place between the Old Testament prophets and the coming Messiah. John emerges into the biblical story from the desert (Luke 1:80). He had deliberately sought out the wilderness, and in the wilderness God had forged a strength of soul and clarity of vision.

John stands in the in-between with both gratitude and hope. He is humble and bold. He’s not the least bit anxious about his future, nor is he bitter about his place as a lesser light to the coming Messiah.

At one point it seemed that John was the hot-ticket, the rock star preacher drawing crowds from all over Judea. Everyone was going out to hear him and many were being baptized. Even his critics went out to see what was happening on the banks of the Jordan river. But suddenly that changed. Jesus had arrived, and John’s disciples noticed that the attendance momentum was shifting in Jesus’ favor. They became defensive and worried (John 3:26). John himself was not bothered. “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Everything, all of life, comes as a gift. These are the words of a grateful man, not a bitter man.

And even as the crowds came, John pointed to a future that would eclipse what he was doing. He kept telling these crowds that there was another, someone greater yet to come. “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Again, these words are expectant and hope-filled, born of vision of what God was doing and would yet do.

John stood in-between with gratitude and hope, thankfulness and expectancy. What would it look like for us to do the same?

God Is Working
This is the bedrock conviction that sustains us in the in-between: God is always working, even in the barren stretches and long spaces between what was and what will be.

God was at work then, in days that are now held in your memory. God is working with purpose for a future you cannot see today. And in the place where you are right now, God is at work and God wills to work through you.

It’s very easy to forget that when we’re living in the in-between. I find it interesting that Jesus would later say that ‘among those born of women’ none was greater than John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). That’s quite a commendation for a man who lived his life standing in-between, thankful for what had been given to him and expectant as to what was coming. God is working in your in-between places.

This is the source of our thankfulness. This is the source of our hope.

Gracious God, make us thankful and hopeful in this day. In whatever transitions we’re working through, in the stretch of time between what was and what will come, keep us grounded in the knowledge that you are present and at work in all things, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.