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Joy, Trust, and Middle School Mary

Annunciation, John Collier.

Take a few moments to drink in the picture above. What do you see? Look at each part of the painting. Work your way from the large, primary elements—a young girl, an angel, a suburban neighborhood—down to the details. Let loose your imagination. What does each detail suggest to you? What does it mean?

I love the untied saddle shoes and the girl’s focus on the book in her hands. She reminds me of a middle school girl in one of the classes I substitute taught. The artist, John Collier, calls his painting Annunciation; I call it “Middle School Mary.”

A few weeks before Christmas I was invited to preach on the Advent theme of joy. As I read the Bible passages assigned for the week (Isaiah 35:1–10, Psalm 146:5, Luke 1:46b–55, James 5:7–10, and Matthew 11:2–11), I looked for indications of joy. The word showed up once or twice, but the contexts of the passages seemed grounds for anything but joy: Isaiah 35 speaks of desert, wilderness, and parched land; James speaks of patience in suffering; in Matthew 11, Jesus’ cousin John is in prison. And then there’s Mary’s song (Luke 1) which, admittedly, I’ve usually skipped over.

A few days before I was to preach, a friend had posted the image above on his social media pages, along with a couple other non-traditional artistic interpretations of Christmas. Collier’s painting hung in my mind as I read and re-read Mary’s song. At first, it was hard to reconcile the faith and joy of her words with the earth-shattering news this unmarried teenage girl had just received. I imagined that 7th-grade girl in my class who always had her nose in a book. How would her world change with the discovery that she was pregnant? What if one of my own daughters had come to me as a teen and told me she was to have a baby? All the impacts you can imagine for a young, unmarried girl would certainly be true of Mary: Whispers, rumors, sideways glances. Embarrassment, shame, social rejection.

Of course, none of these (except for Joseph’s intent to quietly end his relationship with her) are recorded in scripture. Clearly, God wants us to see Mary’s ready and humble acceptance of the incredible purpose and mission he has for her. But her response should shock us. We should be jolted out of our comfortable complacency by the very fact of this young girl’s unquestioning obedience.

What is her response? Joy. Abject joy! She praises God. She sees herself as part of a bigger plan, a movement toward God’s work of restoration and redemption. Instead of shame, she feels blessed. In place of rejection, she trusts in God’s acceptance and control. Where others condemn, she receives God’s mercy. Joy.

But how? And what can we learn from Mary’s response? For me, the lesson was found in rethinking joy. In spite of hearing (and preaching) countless messages explaining the difference between happiness and joy, I still confuse the two. I want happiness; I need joy. Calvin Miller writes:

Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-being that characterize our lives. Joy is bedrock stuff. Joy is a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel.

Calvin Miller, The Taste of Joy, 11. Emphasis added.

When I confuse the two, when I settle for happiness, I doom myself to an unsettled life of emotional highs and lows, like a small boat on a windswept sea.

Mary’s joyful acceptance and obedience is rooted in a lifetime of expectant relationship with God. Though as a girl she would not have had formal training in a Hebrew school, her joy-filled song in response to Elizabeth’s greeting clearly shows a deep awareness and understanding of the history of her Jewish ancestors, God’s work among them throughout that history, and their anticipation of a Savior.

It is this disciplined and expectant faith that prepared Mary to receive with joy the disruptive, indeed world-shattering, report that she, an unmarried teenager, is pregnant. Mary didn’t need to find joy; she knew joy in the middle of the disruption because her faith was built on the bedrock of God’s goodness.

What about you? What about me? Am I looking for joy, or do I know joy because I know God and his goodness? Have I practiced the discipline of knowing God and his Word so that I can trust his goodness? Do I trust that he is at work for good in the world even as I am bombarded with news of wars and famines? Do I trust in his good plan even as I hear yet another diagnosis of cancer, a father’s death, a child’s struggle with addiction?

It is easy to see pain and death and destruction in the world around me. It is easy to recognize the masks of that pain on social media. Seeing the goodness of God takes discipline and work and trust. And in this disciplined trust in God’s goodness is a joy I can know.

(For John Collier’s own commentary about his painting, noting both the traditional symbolism and the modern interpretation, watch this video.)

Rise Again—An Easter Lament


He is risen! He is risen indeed! And yet….

Death rains and reigns.
Evil dances.
Lies cry out.
And still He waits.

Your time is perfect,
Your grace severe,
Your patience intolerable

As children die
Women raped
Men slaughtered

A bike lies fallen
Bodies draped with sheets
Cars become tombs

How many more will die
Before one more is saved for eternity?

And where are Your people?
Who will cry out “PEACE! STOP!”?
Who will sacrifice for war to end?
When will the world arise?

Are we so terrified of the killing machines we ourselves have created that we will allow thousands more to die, to be raped, maimed, orphaned, before we will say with our lives, “ENOUGH!”?

And what of my own hypocrisy?

Yes, I care more for the thousands in Ukraine
than the thousands in Syria.

Forgive me, Gracious Father.

Aleppo broke your heart as much as Mariupol.
Or more, for its forgottenness in the world.

Let my heart break for
the widows
the orphans
the immigrants and refugees
the poor
wherever they are
whatever their skin or homeland or language or faith

Rise again, LORD Jesus
On this Easter morning.
Won’t you rise and bring death to its end

Judge the world
Strike down the brute
In the palace or the tent … or my own heart

LORD Sabaoth, LORD of Hosts
Bring an end to the reign of terror
Let the generals rise up against their commander
Let the privates lay down their arms
Let the officers and the sergeants end the atrocities

Reveal yourself as God of justice and wrath
…and grace

Rise again, my Lord and my God.



A storm of thoughts and emotions is swirling inside me as I take in the news from Ukraine. Somewhere in my family history, on my mom’s side, we have roots in Ukraine—not a strong or deep connection, but it’s there.

Stronger is the pull from the four years I invested in the U.S. Air Force, fighting the Cold War that helped buy Ukraine’s freedom and independence from the oppression of the Soviet Union. Stationed in England, I took the Soviet threat seriously: we knew their missiles were pointed at us; a U.S. missile base was both built and decommissioned in the space of those four years, just eight miles from where I was stationed; F-5E fighter jets, painted and trained as Soviet fighters, were among the aircraft assigned to my base, flying to train western air forces in air-to-air combat. (The 527th Tactical Fighter Training Aggressor Squadron was the Air Force’s version of the Navy’s better-known Top Gun Fighter Weapons School.)

Some say the Cold War was a war of words—but they were words backed up by very real weapons, many of them nuclear. Those were scary times. Between the rhetoric and the propaganda (on both sides) and the missiles, life—particularly in Europe—was lived under a threatening cloud known as MAD: “mutually-assured destruction.” Our hope was vested in leaders on both sides who were reasonable enough to long for, and work for, a greater peace.

We won that war, that Cold War. Reason prevailed. Treaties were signed. Missiles dismantled. Oppressed citizens were empowered to rise against their oppressors to demand freedoms they’d never known. It wasn’t easy; change … transformation … never is. The pull back to what is known, what is comfortable—even oppression—is great. (I think of the ancient Israelites who, in the heat of the wilderness, yearned to go back to the familiar slavery in Egypt.) But the pull to something better won out, and throughout Eastern Europe, men and women endured the discomfort of change for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

Yet always there is someone who wants to go back, who misses the power that would have been, could have been, theirs under the old regime. They proclaim strength and freedom and prosperity. They decry the hard work of real freedom, they bemoan the discomfort of real transformation, they blame the present sufferings on the future hope. And their sweet words entice even reasonable men and women to offer up even their own power and freedom on an altar to evil.

History is repeating itself. Again. At what cost? Will Ukraine become the first casualty of a war for a new Soviet Union or will the invasion be crushed by a global coalition as happened in Kuwait in 1991? Will the world be drawn into a third Great War or is this, as some suggest, the biblical Armageddon—truly the War to end all wars?

Pray for peace. Fight for freedom. Silence the evil

No Shave November


It’s been more than thirty years since I’ve had a beard. Eiley doesn’t care for them and, well, that pretty much seals the deal. This year, though, she graciously (though also rather reluctantly) allowed me to participate in #NoShaveNovember along with others at the Sonora Police Department, which I serve as a chaplain.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the goal of No Shave November is to raise funds and awareness for cancer prevention and treatment, particularly for men. (Sonora Police raised $525—which was matched by another donor—for the Cancer Patient Support Fund at Adventist Health Sonora). I love the fact that the day we presented the donation, one of our dispatchers joined the fun by giving herself a beard!

Part of my motivation this year was to honor my brother, who spent his last two years of high school—and life—battling cancer. Rick was eighteen months older than me and had already fought off a kidney disease before he turned eight. The summer before our family moved to Germany, in our physicals prior to the move, Rick was found to have testicular cancer. (I learned only in the last few years that the cancer was likely the result of an experimental treatment for the earlier kidney disease.) Rick spent his 16th birthday in the hospital recovering from surgery, and over the next two years would spend as much as three weeks at a time in the hospital receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Those treatments, of course, took Rick’s hair, meaning that over his last two years of high school, he had at least three different heads of hair: the straight, auburn hair he grew up with, a sandy-brown wig, and finally the dark red, wavy hair that grew back after chemo. Rick never had a chance to grow a beard. On March 26, 1980—an official high school graduate three months shy of his 18th birthday—Rick passed into eternity.

Rick, this beard’s for you.

Getting What We Want


Recently I read something about the power of the media to “control the minds of the masses.” As I read, the thought came to me that the media give us what we want to see. And politicians tell us what we want to hear.

We get what we want … but we don’t want what we get.

We say we want truth, but really we only want the truth that makes us feel better about ourselves, or the truth that confirms what we already think (or want to think). We don’t want the truth that tells us we’re wrong, that we’re going in a bad direction, that the Titanic is sinking. Former Vice President Al Gore recognized this in the title of his book, An Inconvenient Truth. Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men nailed it when he bellowed, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Shortly after reading the statement about the media, I read my mom’s most recent blog post, in which she wrote about how she makes it a habit to look inside herself, to discover ways in which she still needs to learn and grow. Yet such introspection is hard. It’s uncomfortable. We’re not sure we can “handle the truth” about ourselves.

It’s easy to point fingers at the media, politicians, or anyone else we want. It’s easy to blame parents or teachers or society or even God for the brokenness we know we live with but don’t want to deal with.

What we need instead, though, is to stand in front of the mirror and point—to acknowledge that what is wrong in the world really is just a reflection of what is wrong with ourselves.

Maybe instead of looking at the media and seeing what we want to see, or listening to the politicians and hearing what we want to hear, we need to listen to the prophets—the prophets of old and the prophets of today—who speak God’s truth even at the risk of their own lives; who will point the finger at us and point our eyes toward God.