I set the familiar scene a different way this year. Always before, I’ve laid them out the same: the three kings line one side of the mantel, the shepherd and his sheep flank the other. Mary and Joseph bend beside the manger, and the angel stands guard in the center of the lineup, her curved wings arcing over the sleeping baby.
This year, I changed things up. I only did it because I craved more symmetry. The shepherd with his little sheep couldn’t quite balance the towering magi. So I plucked the angel from her perch and set her off to one side, out behind the shepherd. Now, there were four tall worshippers on the one side of the baby: Mary and the kings; and three on the other: Joseph, the shepherd, and the angel. It seemed more even. I moved on to the wooden Nutcracker and the felt-jacketed Santa Claus.
But as I continued bustling about the room, unwrapping glass ornaments from paper sheaths and lifting gingerbread men from nests of styrofoam, the ceramic figures kept catching my eye. I may have evened out the mantel, but I feared I had torn a gash in the fabric of the universe. With no angel to back him up, who knew what might befall that sleeping baby?
I began to wonder if, in my unthinking rearrangement, I had stumbled onto a deeper theological truth. Angels are all over the Biblical account of Christ’s birth, of course--so much announcing and annunciating to do. Angels appear to Mary, Joseph, Mary’s cousin-in-law Zechariah, and the shepherds in the field. But Luke specifically informs us that when the angels finished delivering the birth announcement to the shepherds, they went back to heaven. Which means that by the time the shepherds and, later, the wise men arrived at the stable, Jesus had already been left alone with humanity.
God the Father is no helicopter parent. He leaves his only Son in the care of a couple of untrained teenagers. No backup angel squad waits in the wings. Angels do tend to Jesus after his forty days of fasting in the desert; other than that, angels don’t appear on earth during Jesus’ lifetime. As the Son of God hangs dying on the cross, passersby mock, “Let God rescue him now if he wants him!” Nobody shows up.
The birth and death and resurrection of God is a mystery. The angel on the periphery of my nativity scene reminds me that, as Peter tells us, “even angels long to look into these things.” Angels do not hover over the Holy One. They peer longingly from the sidelines, wondering what in the world the King of the Universe is going to do next.
When the angel presided over the center of the creche, she seemed like the host of the party. Mary winces through her after-pains, and Joseph stands there all blinkered and dazed, neither of them in any shape to chitchat with sheep wranglers. But the angel at the center of the nativity always seemed to declare, “Come on in! Glad you’re here! Heaven’s got this! This one’s on us!”
But with the angel on the sidelines, this looks like a no-host nativity. Heaven steps back and waits to see how each human being on earth will engage with the One who turned water into wine. Some worship. Some crucify. Some just keep walking. Who will pay the tab?
Not to worry. There is a host here, after all. With the angel out of the way, we can see the Host for who he really is: all twenty inches and seven pounds of him, sleeping in the manger. The tab will be paid.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him. Isaiah 11:2
after lifetimes of hovering,
eons spent sweeping over the face of the earth
howling through the cracks
of each craggy human heart--
the Spirit finally finds
a resting place:
A Holy Godman,
capacious container of Mystery.
Infant-sized, to all appearances,
but all Majesty within--
like a magic carpet bag
that opens to a rising lamppost
or a trumpeting elephant.
Can you rest, Spirit,
(Though I am small and petty,
full of bias and resentment
that would seem to leave no toehold
for the Divinity;
unable to rest, myself, anywhere.)
Can you find
some blood-washed crevice
to light upon?
Find the Jesus in me
and settle, there.
until I learn
the rest of me.
Every year on my birthday, I try to get away for some time with God. It began the year I turned 32, when I already had childcare set up for a class I was teaching, but the class was cancelled, so I dropped my kids off anyway and sat in the park watching leaves fall. Another year, I booked a room in a nearby convent: I spent three hours lying on a hard twin bed in a tiny room, writing in my journal and flipping leisurely through the Bible.
Usually, a theme emerges. In the park, I read the story of Mary and Martha over and over again and decided that God wanted me to slow down in the year to come. At the convent, followed a rabbit trail of Bible references about the glory of God and told Him I wanted to see His glory that year.
Last year, in November of 2015, I told God I wanted to see Him provide.
We had just bought a new house. A house that seemed barely functional in some ways: no dishwasher, carpets damp with cat pee in every corner, ancient windows swelled shut; and extravagant in others: twice as much square footage as the rental we left behind, an impressively columned entryway that makes the house look like it’s the fanciest one on the block. It was one of the cheapest houses for sale in the entire Portland metro area—cheapest among houses I could plausibly conceive of stuffing a family of six into, that is; we still have three boys in one room—and yet it cost $70,000 more than the house we’d sold six months before, when a job change for my husband caused us to move from the smaller, humbler metropolis of Spokane, Washington. I wasn’t sure what the utility bills would look like, but I thought we could just about afford it, if nothing went wrong.
My husband wasn’t convinced. “This doesn’t seem like a good idea,” Jeremy had worried back in October, as we were discussing our offer. “Are you sure we can do this?”
“I think we can make it work,” I replied. “It might be tight for a while, but we can swing it.”
Jeremy regarded my placid face with skepticism. “Well… you’re the one who takes care of the budget…”
This was true. It was also true that I really wanted that house. “I’m sure it will all work out,” I insisted.
So on my birthday, which fell in the middle of the escrow period between negotiating the price and closing the deal, I asked God to provide. God doesn’t exactly promise to pay the mortgage, but there are plenty of verses in Scripture about God’s provision, so I felt like it was a reasonable request to make. I don’t subscribe to the “Health and Wealth Gospel” that says God always blesses His children financially (if you send an offering to the person preaching that particular philosophy, is usually the conditional), but I do believe in asking for specific things and watching how God answers them. I had asked for a house in the first place, when we found out we were moving from Spokane to Portland, and the long, convoluted path full of rejected offers that eventually led us to the electric blue house with the white columns felt like a miraculous sort of a thing. If God was giving us the house, I told myself, surely it wasn’t too much to ask that He would help us keep it.
About a month or two after I prayed that prayer asking God to provide during my thirty-seventh year, I suddenly realized: this year is going to suck.
Not because God doesn’t keep his promises. No, I still believed that God would come through for us, providing everything we truly needed all year long. I just happened to remember that when God wants us to see Him at work, He often takes His time stripping everything else away. Only then are we able to recognize the provision that comes only from God. God let the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years before they found the Promised Land. Jacob’s family starved before they got to Joseph’s God-ordained stockpiles in Egypt. Elijah felt utterly abandoned before he heard the still, small voice of God. Gideon was ordered to send home over thirty thousand troops so he would know it was God alone who fought with the remaining three hundred.
And so it happened. After we moved in, the refrigerator broke. The milk was warm and the ice cream drippy. The washing machine flooded the basement. Three inches of standing water soaked into the boxes we hadn’t yet unpacked. We had to sink a thousand dollars into Jeremy’s car just to keep it on the road. Then the refrigerator broke again, and the washing machine flooded again, too. Each unexpected disaster dinged our savings account, already diminished by the expense of moving in the first place. My thirty-seventh year wasn’t half over before I thought, God is going to zero us out.
It wasn’t just the savings account that felt stretched. I found that with the new mortgage payment and utility bills, the checking account wasn’t quite adequate to put food on the table. The last week of every month was a lean one: beans or eggs or pancakes for dinner. No milk. No fruit. No fresh vegetables. No cheese.
I hadn’t found a job in Portland yet. I’d had enough to worry about with moving twice (first into the rental, then the house we’d bought), and getting my four kids started in new schools (again, twice: one set of new schools for each house). Even though I hadn’t worked outside the home for several years, I was open to it. I just didn’t know where to look. I did apply for a part-time receptionist position in January, but they never asked me for an interview.
At the beginning of February, I looked at my budget for the month and put it to God straight. We need more money to get to the end here, I told Him. What are you going to do about it?
A couple of days later, I was picking my kids up when a woman I’d recently met in the elementary school cafeteria approached me. “My friend just got a new job and she’s looking for after-school childcare for her son,” Debbie informed me, without even saying hello. “I told her about you.”
I was confused. What did you tell her, I wondered. But I smiled and nodded. That evening, I found myself speaking with Debbie’s friend Tanya on the phone. “Can you take my son tomorrow?” Tanya asked me. “I can pay four dollars an hour.”
She hadn’t even met me yet. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
Four dollars an hour wasn’t much, but Tanya was a single mom earning not much more than minimum wage, so it was a lot to her. And the job had fallen into my lap. I didn’t have to arrange other childcare for my own children, I didn’t have to buy work clothes or pack a lunch or even leave my house. And it paid just enough that we made it to the end of February—and March, and April, and May.
Over the summer, Tanya sent her son to live with his dad, so he didn’t come to my house anymore. But another friend paid me to watch her kids every day. God was providing.
Something else happened this year, and in the context of this story you might think I’m a complete and total idiot. But this fall, I went back to school. I wanted to get a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.
I know, what?! This woman can’t afford to buy milk and fruit for her children and she’s shelling out thousands of dollars for a master’s degree in creative writing, of all things? It’s a little bit like buying a big blue house with white columns when you can’t afford the mortgage and utility bills. What were we thinking? Was this a walk of faith, or gross negligence?
Well, for one thing, my mom said she would loan me the money for school, and I could pay it back interest-free anytime before she died. That sounded just fine to me. But then, after I got in to the program, when I didn’t get the scholarship I’d foolishly counted on, Mom hesitated.
“How much money do you need now?” she asked me over the phone.
“Well… I know I told you it would be twenty-four thousand. But it’s actually… thirty-six?” There was no way to sugarcoat this.
“Sarah…” Mom sighed. “I just don’t have that much money.”
“Um… I know.” I really wanted to enroll in that program. “How about this!” I exclaimed. “You pay for the first year. I’ll figure out the second.”
Add it to God’s tab, I figured. If He wants me to finish the program, He’ll provide. If not, then I’ll just walk away.
So, in September, my youngest son began kindergarten, my oldest daughter started middle school, and I embarked on a master’s degree. Our savings account was smaller than it had ever been at any point in our fifteen-year marriage. I had no more childcare gigs lined up. I had applied for an Oregon teaching license back in May, and I figured that once it came through, I could substitute teach once or twice a week. Would that cover the bills, plus grow our savings enough for me to pay for my second year of school? Probably not. But I preferred to look on the bright side. I applied for a magazine essay contest and a women writers’ scholarship, just in case.
In October, the furnace wouldn’t turn on. We ignored it for a few days, but the outside temperature was falling. I spent an hour on hold with the thermostat company, convinced the problem lay there. (Side note to the folks at Honeywell: playing a dumbed-down, jazzed-up version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” over and over and over and over again only makes me want to say just the opposite when you finally pick up the phone.) But Honeywell told me to get somebody out to the house, and when the technician had given our system a good look-see, he broke the news to me gently: we needed a whole new furnace.
The savings account was not up to the challenge. We would have to put the furnace on a credit card. My birthday was fast approaching, and it appeared that the year I had asked God to provide would end in the red.
Still, I remained oddly optimistic. Somehow, I knew God wouldn’t let me down.
“What are we going to do?” my husband asked me as we drove to Bunko night, the week the furnace broke.
A sweet grandmother from church had invited us to her monthly Bunko night, and Jeremy had accepted the invitation. I stalled for a while, intentionally refusing to find a babysitter because I didn’t want to spend thirty dollars on Bunko night. In the end, though, I knew I couldn’t back out. You have to have an exact number of people in order to play Bunko. So we left the kids home alone with a movie and headed to Renee’s house.
“Are you just waiting for your sub license to come through, or what?” Jeremy pressed as we drove through the neighborhood. “I just can’t see a way through this.”
“I know…” I trailed off, unsure how much optimism to reveal to my justifiably anxious husband. “Can I tell you something? I’ve had this one song in my head all week.”
Jeremy raised his eyebrows at me, unsure where this was going.
“It’s this song that my mom used to play on a record player when I was really little,” I went on. “It starts with a conversation between two people: ‘I expect a miracle,’ says one little voice—but I can’t remember why—and then the other voice says, ‘what does that mean,” and then the first voice starts to sing…”
“Okay…” Jeremy was listening, but we had arrived. He pulled over and I broke into song.
“I expect a miracle, I expect a miracle!” My voice faltered along the singsong tune. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural, intervention of God. I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle! I expect a miracle. La lala la lala.” I laughed at myself, but I was serious. “Anyway, I just keep singing that song. And I just know that God is going to do something.”
Jeremy turned off the car and opened his door. He shook his head. “Okay.” He wasn’t convinced, but what could he say? “Let’s see what happens.”
Maybe one of us will win Bunko tonight, I thought as I walked into our friend’s house. Maybe that’s why we’re here. Each player had to put $3 into the pot, and cash prizes would be doled out at the end. Then I realized that the grand prize of $40 wouldn’t buy us a new furnace.
Some people like Bunko because you can talk to people while you play. Unfortunately, I can’t. I found that if I tried to converse with the players at my table, I forgot which number I was looking for on the dice rolls. I lost track of how many ones or twos or threes I’d already counted. I forgot to add my score to my partner’s. Bunko is a terribly easy game, but I was terrible at it.
We finally made it to the last round of the night. I’d won and lost, bumping my way up and down the tables scattered all over Renee’s living room, dining room, and family room. As I sat down at the final table, I determined to concentrate on the little dice dots.
But the woman sitting across from me, whom I’d never met before, wanted to chat. “What do you do?” she asked me as the round began.
Ever since I became a stay-at-home mom, I’ve hated that question. “Well… mostly I’m home with my four kids,” I began, not looking up from the dice I was rolling. “And… I just started a master’s program for creative writing.” I felt sheepish about that part, because most people don’t know what to do with that information. But it sounded better than simply “home with four kids,” somehow.
“Oh! My school is looking for a writing teacher,” my questioner replied.
I looked up at my partner for the first time. She was a diminutive woman with a broad smile and rolling black hair. “I used to be a teacher,” I informed her. “What kind of school is it?”
Less than two weeks later, I had a new job.
Oh—and we got a second opinion on the furnace. The old one is working fine now.
This year, we didn’t follow any of the rules. Financial gurus like Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman would have a fit over the way we’ve pushed our bank accounts to the breaking point. I feel like I have to tell this story with a huge caveat: please, please, please do not take any advice from me and follow me to a state of financial ruin.
But although this year has not been easy, we got through it. And I now have a part-time teaching job that feels like it was created for me. It pays relatively well and it leaves me with time to work on my master’s degree. I expect to be able to replenish our savings account, and I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to pay for that second year of my master’s degree.
I turned 38 yesterday, and for the first time in years, I spent my birthday at work. God has provided.
This Sunday, October 9, is Pastor Appreciation Day. The whole month is also called Pastor Appreciation Month. Usually, I see this pop up and I don't pass it on, because it feels like as a pastor's wife, I'd be grubbing for something for my husband, and, by extension, myself. But this year, I realized that if I'm not advocating for pastors to be appreciated, who is?
The truth is, the men and women who serve our churches as pastors are working longer hours than you realize, wearing more hats than you can imagine, carrying more burdens than you could understand unless you've been in a pastor's family yourself.
So, if you have a pastor whom you appreciate—even sometimes or a little bit!—let them know it. They don't need a mug or a plaque or a plate of cookies. Don’t even spend any money at all. Just tell them you’re thankful for them. They need to hear that more than you know.
Here are ten ways to do it.
10. Write a note. I won’t say “send a card,” because that might involve a trip to the Hallmark store. Just pick up any old piece of paper lying around the house and write some heartfelt words on it. If you don’t have a stamp, leave it in their box at church.
9. Leave a voicemail. So many voicemails pile up in a pastor’s inbox—how about calling to simply say, “Don’t call me back. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate you!”
8. Offer to visit someone. Your pastor probably has a list of ten people in the hospital or nursing home right now whom he or she would love to have time to visit. Why not offer to stop by on behalf of the church? You’ll make the person’s day, and your pastor will appreciate it, too.
7. Volunteer to join the usher team, paint a hallway, teach a Sunday School class, fix the website, join the choir, sing in the praise band, work in the nursery, fold bulletins, plant flowers, cut communion bread. “Church” is supposed to be everybody’s job—what’s yours?
6. Start a ministry. Organizing the church to love people outside the church doesn’t have to begin with the paid staff. What’s your passion? Talk to your pastor about how you see your church jumping in to doing Jesus’ work.
5. Show up. Pastors know that church is about more than just getting bodies into pews—but it makes them happy when you care enough to come.
4. Tell them what you learned from the sermon. Or what challenged you, or what you agree with, or disagree with, or what changed your life, or even just what you remember. Pastors pour their hearts out every week, and they love to know that someone is listening.
3. Stop the service. Don’t do this without talking to an elder or worship director first! But maybe it could work to stop the service for a moment (after the sermon, so you don’t throw the pastor off their game) just to pray for the pastor publicly. Pastors pray for lots of other folks during church services—who’s praying for them?
2. Remember their children. How to do this depends on how old the kids are and what they’re into. But kids know when people are genuinely interested in who they are. Say hi to them. Ask them about their baseball game or their summer camp. Get to know them. Pray for them. And while you’re at it, get to know the other kids in your church, too.
And the number one way to appreciate your pastor is…
1. Pray for them. Get on your knees (or don’t, because God hears you anyway) and ask God to protect your pastor when doubt, discouragement, stress, and anxiety come his or her way. Ask that God would flourish the ministry of the pastor and of the whole church. Pray however God leads, because He will, and He’ll answer. And this one is so important, don’t stop when Pastor Appreciation Month is over. Keep praying for your pastor all year long.
I came to the prison hungry. The club meeting started at 6 pm, so my writers' group had to arrive at the prison for check-in at 5:30, so I met the carpool at 4:15, so I left my house at 3:45, so I scarfed a sandwich at 3:38. To my well-regulated stomach, this did not qualify as dinner.
As I drove to the carpool location, I ruminated on the dinner situation, and wondered briefly if they would have any food to offer us. “Of course they won’t,” I quickly reproached myself, and brought tears to my own eyes thinking about the loss of such a basic freedom as the ability to offer hospitality.
It turned out, I was wrong. The inmates had wrapped cinnamon rolls in paper towels, and pre-poured cups of water and bright red fruit punch. When a cinnamon roll was offered to me, my first instinct was to decline it (didn’t the prisoner-chefs do horrible things to the food on Orange is the New Black?), but then I remembered that I was, actually, hungry.
“You look like you want to say yes,” the club president, Francisco, laughed, as he watched my eyes linger on the sugar-drizzled dough balls.
I nodded. “Okay, then,” I agreed. It seemed rude not to take it; it was all they had to offer me.
I was wrong, again. The men of the 7th Step Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary had much to offer. They offered their respect, listening attentively to our varied essays. They offered generous awards to each of us: “Most Articulate,” “Most Energetic,” “Most Moving.” Most of all, they offered their stories.
I spent most of my time, after the essays were read, talking with two particular prisoners. The first, Dan, was 56 years old. A long, white ponytail hung down his back, and he was missing a front tooth. He had been in prison for 30 years, and had another 27 years to go. He would be 83 when he could be released, but he expected to die before then.
The other prisoner who shared his story with me, David, was 39 years old, and had been in prison for 20 years already. Intelligent eyes flashed behind yellow-tinted glasses as he told me his story. “I did something dumb when I was 19, and I’m never getting out of here.” For killing two men at a shooting range, in response to a perceived threat, David had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, or, as he put it simply, “life without.”
Both of these two men, separately from one another, spoke of similar themes. When I asked Dan what was the hardest part of prison life, he immediately responded, “Non-existence. Feeling like I don’t really exist.” David responded to a similar question, “It feels like I’m not really a person at all.” Both men spoke of having few or no meaningful contacts remaining outside the prison walls. Both spoke of keeping to themselves within the prison community. Both spoke of wanting to kill themselves.
Though they had recently eaten (such as it was – apparently a favorite meal was pork tenderloin, “because you can tell what it is”), these men were much, much hungrier than I. They were hungry for human contact. They were hungry for dignity.
They offered me cinnamon rolls and fruit punch; what did I have to offer them? I had spoken of Jesus Christ in my essay, and Dan confided that he trusted in Jesus, too.
“I don’t like to go to the church groups they have here,” he allowed, “but I do my own prayers that I have to do.”
But David was warier. “I’m a Jew,” he informed me, testily.
“That’s okay!” I responded, too brightly. “Jesus was a Jew!”
David’s eyes measured the distance between us. “It’s fine if what you believe about the next life makes you a better person,” he observed, and it sounded like a sentiment he had expressed many times before. “But what about this life? What about a second chance?” He laid his hands open on the table between us. “I was a first-time offender. I never even had a speeding ticket. I know I took those guys’ lives away, and I can never repay that. But how can you send a 19 year old kid away for the rest of his life?”
I believed that Jesus could make a difference to David’s life even if he never got out of prison, but I also felt in that moment that if I tried to convince him of that, it would only sound hollow. How did the Jesus of my middle-class suburban life translate to a maximum-security penitentiary?
“I’m going to pray for you,” I finally told David as our conversation wrapped up.
“That’s fine,” he replied. “Go ahead.”
“So what do you want me to pray?” I pressed.
He seemed genuinely taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“What do you want me to ask God to do for you?”
The response to that question came right away. “Prison reform. I want a chance to get out of here. I want hope.”
“Okay,” I promised, and I knew I was accepting a burden that would not be easily lifted. “I’m going to ask God for that.”
At the end of the meeting, the club president got back on the microphone to remind the men that the club had to pay for the cinnamon rolls, so member donations were appreciated. David had just informed me that the prisoners’ maximum salary, for working 40 hours a week, was $158 a month. I wondered how much the prison charged for the cinnamon rolls and fruit punch. It turned out that these men had offered me a very costly hospitality, indeed.
I drove home and ate a taco, leftovers from my family’s dinner hours earlier. My hunger disappeared. But the hunger in the eyes of the men I met in prison will stay with me for a long, long time.