Epiphany means “reveal.” It seems obvious but necessary to point out, then, on this Epiphany day of January 6, that a true epiphany involves the uncovering or exhibition or manifestation of something or someone other than the witness.
In our ego-centric culture, we hear constantly of our own inner value and majesty. In essence, many people have mistaken their uniquely, divinely created souls for the Divine itself.
And yet the law written upon our hearts knows the truth: for every narcissistic homo incurvatus in se, every self-laudatory “aha!” moment, every effort to lift and glorify oneself above our mortal dust turns right back into dust. The mortal new year shine reflects upon us not our own splendor. No, its dawn reveals the inexorable passing of time and our concomitant bondage to our inevitable decay.
This knowledge can cause us despair. Or we can learn from the great Epiphany again. “Arise, shine, for your Light has come,” wrote the prophet Isaiah,”and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). He and the other true prophets pointed only and always to the great Light that saves us, Christ Jesus. In the child born to Mary, adopted by Joseph, we receive the only eternal life we can hope for. Like the kings from the East, we Christians also marvel at the Son of David’s coming for us and all the world. We blink in His light, bowing to the One whose pierced hands came to save us.
Now richly to my waiting heart, O Thou, my God, deign to impart The grace of love undying.
In Thy blest body let me be, E’en as the branch is in the tree, Thy life my life supplying.
Sighing, crying; For the savor of Thy favor; Resting never till I rest in Thee forever.
~ “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” The Lutheran Hymnal, #343vs. 3.
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about – whenever the wind blows.”
We love to complain about the shocking, simply shocking turns of our fickle spring weather. Not just here in Wyoming, of course. Americans as a whole find the outlier climes of our natural world as disquieting at best and monstrous at worst. Coastal hurricanes in September, Midwest tornadoes in April, western mountain snowfall in May–these disturb us, scare us, and even horrify us, based upon the ferocity of their whirling winds and wrath and the destruction they can wreak upon us. We marvel at it, and talk and talk and talk about it, and shake our heads. “It’s not right,” we say.
What these storms don’t usually do is convict us of our willful pigheadedness of thinking weather to be some sort of predictable, and thus peaceable, component of our physical life. If the skies and sunlight and seasons are normal–that is, neat and tidy and comfortable–we wear them with a familiar and faintly condescending kind of neglect, a habitual ignoring in which we can safely box them in, quite like an ordinary old hat, and set them aside, like forgettable scenery to the more important parts of our lives. I’m reminded of any number of those lovely, neat, colorful children’s books about the seasons. There’s no way, really, to allow for the true wide-ranging orthodoxies of our weather patterns in a few pages of illustrations directed to the youngest among us (or if there is, I haven’t discovered such a book or books yet). But such texts invariably shape how we expect, and even emotionally demand, our seasons to be, even when we know they cannot be so cleanly understood.
I love books like these precisely because they present a cohesive and predictable view of the elements. They are gloriously comfortable, like homemade macaroni and cheese. But they play into our desire for a safe and easy world. For when spring, say, turns fickle, and mild temperatures plunge as ominously heavy grey clouds amass above us, the soft flakes that fall upon our upturned, wondering faces break our smug certainties. We are left cold, startled and shaken by the unexpected. No matter how gently the white powder caresses the newly-budded trees, we know, deep in our bones, just how little we comprehend the mysteries and depth of our creation, just how small and vulnerable we are under the vast expanse.
Or at least we should. Last week here, we watched as our freshly green locale was covered once again by wet, thick snow. For three days, the sun hid, the cold persisted, and frosted crystals swirled and stuck. My irritability over the snow, the dragging out of newly washed and stored snow pants and gloves, my shivering body which had grown used to sunny, pleasant breezes, all reminded me how I had fallen, once again, into thinking the outdoors was somehow a companionable canvas of my personal expectations. May means flowers, and short-sleeves, and bare feet soaking in the rays of a long-absent warmth, my childlike thinking went. The snow shattered my illusions.
And lest I sound bitter, let me acknowledge that such moments in time and in life are invaluable, precisely because they can yank us from the self-contented complacency that so often dulls our thoughts and senses. “You are not in control,” the swishing, soft snowflakes whisper. Unlike their work on Alice, they do not lull us into sleep. Instead, they hammer us again to turn back, to remember what will always be true. “You lift me up on the wind; you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm,” said an indignant Job. “For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all living.”
Who can Job be speaking to? Who controls the natural world? We all know, surely. This is both the source and the answer to our deepest fears when the skies darken.
God replies that such disquiet in the air and on our skin, both Job’s and ours, is truly from His hand. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? … From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” Such power and threat are terrifying, if not for the One Man who like His Father commands the seasons, saying “Peace! Be still!” He has not left us alone. And the storms are not heretics. They rage an impotent orthodoxy of dying brokenness, and they portend the Day when they shall finally cease at the sound of that one perfect Voice breaking them forever.
I can’t pretend that from this point onward I will happily embrace the untidy, unruly, and unfathomable power of storms. But I can accept them as the signs they are, of time inching slowly toward its glorious, terrible end. That is a truth both formidable and hopeful. For then, like snow in May, we will one day dress in garments of white in a green and golden land, and dance.
How should Christians struggle with the invisible cross of infertility?
This is not a question any of us want to address. Infertility can be an incredibly difficult cross to bear, for us personally and for those we love.
What is infertility? The general definition refers to the inability of child-bearing age couples to conceive or carry a child after twelve months of regular, non-contraceptive sex. Unfortunately, many people, including our brothers and sisters in Christ, bear this pain. According to the CDC, around 18% of child-bearing age women struggle with infertility, and men struggle with infertility, too. The most telling symptom of infertility is in absence: no pregnancy or no child.
This week–April 21-27–is National Infertility Awareness Week, one of the countless remembrance weeks marked on our stuffed secular calendars. While there’s plenty of commentary on infertility for the non-religious, Christians should approach this particular cross with care and caution.
I’ve written here before about our experiences with infertility, from our miscarriage and years of infertility, as well as our more recent molar pregnancy. We obviously share some experiences with those who currently suffer from infertility. After long thinking, I’ve come up with five ways Christians can rightly struggle with the cross of infertility.
Unfortunately, many Christians who suffer from infertility, and Christians who love the infertile, have also fallen into this kind of thinking. Teen moms bear children out of wedlock, a live-in couple “accidentally” gets pregnant, celebrities undergo IVF and pay surrogate mothers to carry their babies, and Christian couples pray fervently for children that God does not give them. As soon as we encounter such situations, our sinful minds automatically play a comparison game, deeming some cases “fair” and others “unfair,” even grossly so. Too often, such comparison thinking transforms the cross of infertility into a trial. If we just plan more, eat better, pay extra, undergo more procedures, and strain mightily in a thousand different ways, then we’ll rid ourselves and loved ones of the unwanted burden of infertility and gain the blessing of children. This is a lie.
Because the desire for children is good, Christians have mistakenly deemed any methods to conceive or bear children as good, too. But this is making a good into a god, a cross into a trial.
“You shall have no other gods before Me,” God told Moses and His people in the wilderness (Exodus 20:3). He didn’t just mean pagan statues of gold or other images. He meant any material or emotional possession that commanded our hearts and our time, energy, and affection. The desire for children can, and does, become an idol, and infertility can become a trial. This can lead us away from God.
A theologian of glory calls barrenness a trial to be overcome, a burden which can be revoked by some great act of faith on our part, a curse that can be lifted by true love’s kiss. (Works Cited: My Own Wishes and Desires: A Treatise, The Complete Works of Joel Osteen, and The Wisdom of the Disney Princesses).
A theologian of the cross calls barrenness a terrible brokenness of the flesh which results from Sin in the world, a cross to be endured joyfully in light of Christ’s promise to make all things new on The Last Day, a suffering given to us by God who loves us and molds us and disciplines us and shapes us and points us straight to Christ’s own suffering on the cross for our own salvation and comfort. (Works Cited: God’s Word as revealed in The Book of Romans).
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The truth is that none of us deserve anything good, but God gives us all kinds of goods anyway. He gave us life when we did nothing to merit it. He sustains us in countless ways, even while all of us sin (Romans 3:23). We deserve only death, but Christ has given Himself to us to take even that away. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Christ is our free gift. He gives us all we need, and while we live and wait for our resurrection in Him, we will suffer. Crosses are not just about pain and grief, though; they point us to the Cross-Bearer, Christ Himself. We might not understand why He gives us particular crosses, but we know with certainty that absolutely nothing, including infertility, can separate us from Christ’s love. He knows exactly what we bear because He bore it Himself–all the grief, all the loneliness, all the hurt and pain. And He loves us with an everlasting love.
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Embracing infertility as a cross doesn’t mean we or our loved ones have to hide our grief or pretend to be happy. But we can, and should, take comfort in our cross, that Christ knew emptiness and loneliness on Calvary, and He keeps and sustains us throughout our struggles.
Third, the cross of infertility can prompt a variety of feelings, and that’s okay.
The most vocal sufferers of infertility tend to be those who desire and pursue parenthood passionately and often vociferously, as noted above. But many people who suffer from infertility experience ambivalence about their infertility, and others who are infertile live out their particular condition quietly, sometimes pursuing medical help, but sometimes not. Sometimes they cry openly and tearfully about not being parents. Often, they don’t. Usually, they live day to day as most of us do who have unfulfilled good desires: pushing through, both impatiently and patiently, with changing feelings and attitudes toward those desires. One book, He Remembers the Barren (affiliated link) and He Remembers the Barren: God Remembers You in Jesus, the blog for the book that covers many topics related to infertility and Christianity, particularly Lutheranism. Three other Lutheran women who have experienced infertility contribute to the blog, too. I highly recommend both the book and the blog to any Christian.
Katie and Scott Sanders, at Beautiful Pieces of Us: Support for Parents with Leftover Frozen Embryos, share their story of embracing life through their experience with IVF and giving their unborn, frozen children a chance at life. Their blog is one of the few places I have found that addresses the heart-wrenching quandary of Christians who have undergone IVF and now struggle to live out their responsibilities to both their born and unborn children.
All of these writers point to Christ, and they can help us understand and articulate the difficult cross that is infertility and the hope we and loved ones can find in Him.
Fifth, we should pray.
All Christians should pray for the infertile in our pews. We should pray for peace for them, for Christ to continually remind them that He will never leave them. We should pray that infertile couples carefully consider their choices, learning about the huge financial market that is the infertility industry, weighing what their most ethical, God-pleasing options are and if and when to decide to pursue medical treatment. We should pray that we might help share their grief and struggle, that they bear with fortitude and patience the cross that they bear. We should pray that the cross of infertility, while a marker of time on this sinful earth, and the internal and external scars it leaves of our wandering in this wilderness, can be understood as signs pointing us to Christ. Infertility does not last forever, but Christ does.
Christians do well to remember that God does not give the same gifts to everyone, even good gifts like marriage and children. That knowledge can temper the pressure on all of us, infertile and fertile alike, to see all those suffering from infertility as losers or as desperate, no-holds-barred seekers. God loves all people, not because we loved Him, or because we are parents or not, but because He gave us Christ, His Son, to bear our sins (1 John 4:10). We should pray that all of us remember that blessed truth.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?
The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.
But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.
The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.
Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.
Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.
Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.
Last night, a group of women from our church met to discuss a chapter in Katie Schuermann’s Pew Sisters. Our ages vary, from Millenials to Boomers, and our experiences vary, from exclusive homemakers to part-time volunteers and entrepreneurs to established professionals. All of us who gathered yesterday were moms. Some are in the diaper-and-potty-training stage. Some have tweens. Some are recent empty nesters. Some are grandmothers. One thing we all share, though, is that we are weak.
We read about Claire, a young mother suffering from postpartum depression who tenaciously clings to Christ’s promises to her in her baptism. Claire’s cross rendered her weak. And in her weakness, Christ revealed His strength and sustained Claire.
As we read and talked, our conversation touched upon many weaknesses we carry and face. Anxiety. Worry. Depression. Marital woes. Chronic illness. Addiction. Many of us shared traumatic birth stories of ourselves or of our children and grandchildren, as well as ongoing medical challenges some of our family and friends face from terminal illnesses. And it occurred to me that in precisely in baring our weaknesses, Christ’s steadfast love and His bearing of our burdens shone most brightly.
Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, of recognizing anew the terrible cross of sin for the entire world that Christ suffered and slew for us. We don’t have much to boast about, we sinners who constantly taint and mess up our lives and suffer many and myriad consequences of sin in our fallen world. But we can always boast in Him, who promises us His faithfulness and blesses us with Himself. And we can do this together, thank God, around His altar and around His word. Crosses come, but He remains, and His grace saves us. Ultimately, that’s all we need.
It’s funny how God works through His Word at just the right time to address specific sins and crosses. Take lying, for instance.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, we heard how the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Of course, any references to the wilderness pique my interest, and I listened closely. I wondered about one of our middle sons, though, who rarely seems to be paying attention in church.
“Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory,” read my husband, the pastor. “And he said to Him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'” Our son, eyes wandering and fingers twiddling, leaned over to me at this point and whispered, “That’s dumb. The kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.”
An insight indeed. Not only was I reminded that children often listen when they seem to be doing anything but; I also realized that the devil never, ever stops telling lies. His lies can be compelling and seem to address true needs, like offering bread to a Man who has miraculously gone without food or drink for forty days and who is, in admirable understatement, “hungry.” His lies can also be completely ridiculous, like telling Jesus, the Son of the Father who created all things and thus already possessed them all, that if He just bows down before him, the devil will give Him…what He already had.
The truth is, though, that the devil will continue to lie to us the way he lied to our Savior because we fall prey to his lies. We dumb, selfish, idiotic fools all have something we crave, and when the right words come along, we can believe almost anything, despite how ridiculous it might be. Sunday morning buffet is so delicious, and I’m hungry; I can go to church some other time. The tax man is so swamped and busy; he won’t notice if I fudge a few numbers on my return. My colleague at work is bright and good-looking; I can be close with him, and my husband won’t even notice. And so on.
One of our children has made a habit lately of lying. It’s been a difficult lesson to learn, for him and for us, seeing how lies–all of them–affect others and relationships, and how we understand the truth. It’s been important for him to learn that there are both temporal consequences to lying, like staying in from recess to complete homework he previously claimed he had finished, as well as spiritual consequences. Broken trust is not renewed overnight. Lies told about small things betray, at best, a lack of understanding to the gravity of untruths. At worst, they betray a rejection that lies hurt both the teller and the receiver of the lie. Lies imprison the teller and ostracize the receiver. They are like worms that, if unchecked, can ruin an apple, leaving only rot behind.
In Bible class after service today, we continued studying in the book of Proverbs, including many verses that referred to both fools and the wise, lying and the truth. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment,” reads Proverbs 12:19. “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy,” exhorts Proverbs 12:20. “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight,” goes Proverbs 12:22.
We know, we know, we all say. This is old news to us believers. And then we all slide on that greasy rail down the wide path, telling others and ourselves little white deceptions that show us just how susceptible we are to the Father of Lies. Even when the lies are dumb, we tell them, and hang on.
Near the end of Bible class, I noticed a small plastic lamb that our youngest had been playing with. There’s nothing particular about it, except I saw ink scribbles all over it. The scribbles had not been there before the class. After simple questions failed to unearth the truth, some moms had to interrogate the likely scribblers. Blanket denials resulted, until one mom said, “Even if it wasn’t you, but you know something that can reveal the truth, you need to speak up.” Then my son opened his mouth and shared the truth.
As sinners, we lie because we fail to see the big picture, the ultimate good that God desires for us. We lie because in the blink of a moment, we think we will get something good for ourselves, whether it’s bread, kingdoms, or avoiding punishment. In that instant, we are blind to the beauty of the Truth, the only Truth that can set us free from our slavery to sin and lies.
Telling the truth is hard. It can mean hunger, and loneliness, and punishment. But God knows what is best. His Word endures forever, and He wants us to be His forever, too. When the lies come easily, we can cling to Christ, who, emaciated and exhausted, told the devil, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.'” In His weakness, the Lamb who died for us, we have strength, and we can tell the truth, too.