Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Stuff Christians Hate

The other day I was thinking about the stuff Christians hate. In particular, I was thinking about the people Christians like to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say, the people that Christians like to dislike. Or maybe, the people that Christians like to deplore. I was reviewing an article for a conservative publication which included a quote from a noted theologian whose views have sparked controversy in the past. I wondered if I should mention it to the editor. There was nothing wrong with the quote. But you know how these things go. Sometimes the mere mention of a name is enough to spark outrage among Christians. It’s not what is said that prompts the reaction. It’s the person who said it. We often don’t even understand the nature of the controversy. We just know that someone told us that the author said something somewhere else that was bad.

Concerns about what people have said or written are reasonable, especially when it comes to the faith. It’s not so surprising that we don’t understand finer details of such matters. Most of us rely upon the opinion of others to help discern good teaching from bad. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says that it is the duty of the church’s leaders to warn God’s people about false doctrine. Even theologians depend upon other theologians for their opinions.

I’ve noticed that our tastes in these matters also tend to be cyclical. That was the question I wrestled with when it came to the quote. We hated this guy five years ago. But do we still hate him today? Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say that he made us uncomfortable. We didn’t doubt that he was a Christian. As far as I know, his Christian walk is exemplary.  But people in my theological tribe disagreed with his position, some of them strongly. But after a while, something changes. We feel differently. Maybe we decide this issue that separated us wasn’t that important after all. Perhaps we are tired of controversy and decide to overlook it. Or more likely, some new person or issue captures our attention and pushes our discomfort with the other guy to the margins.

If we wait long enough our old enemy might even become a new favorite. It’s like furniture. The ugly furniture my parents used to decorate our house in the 1950s is now hip. Theology is like that too. Some of the people we used to decry are now merely thought to have been misunderstood. When I was in seminary, my conservative teachers considered Karl Barth to be a liberal. Today he is insightful.

This doesn’t just happen with people. When I started to follow Jesus, I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I liked smoking. Well, all except for the cancer part. But in general, I like the smell and the way I felt when I smoked. I thought it made me look intellectual. Then an older believer I respected told me that serious Christians don’t smoke cigarettes, so I quit. It wasn’t easy for me. It took me a while. It took the grace of God.

These days, such a warning would be considered legalistic. Christians don’t hate smoking anymore. Indeed, I know some Christian leaders who are proud of the fact that they smoke. Of course, it has to be the right kind of smoke. Cigarettes are still considered gauche among conservatives, but not cigars and pipes. They are a common accessory with a certain brand of pastor. He is usually Reformed, young, and bearded. The nagging issue of cancer is still there. But we won’t think about that today. We can think about that tomorrow when the doctor calls with our test results.

The same leaders who don’t hate smoking don’t hate drinking anymore either. They have cast aside the old misgivings some Christians used to have about the consumption of alcohol. They consider abstinence to be an outdated vestige of the sort of legalism that once claimed: “real Christians don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Jesus drank, they point out. He changed water into wine. Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim. 5:23). Not only does this new order of Christian leader like to drink, but they like to post selfies of themselves drinking on social media. This practice seems to be a kind of manifesto, a testimony to Christian liberty.

However, just like smoking, to be truly acceptable, it must be the right kind of drinking. It has to be craft beer or at least wine. One can hardly imagine Jesus tipping a can of Bud. In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I am not a neutral observer on this issue. Both my parents were addicted to alcohol. I also recognize that, although the Bible does condemn drunkenness, it doesn’t condemn the consumption of wine outright. I understand that not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But I also know that ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol that is sold. Maybe alcohol isn’t as hip as we thought.

The list of things we used to hate is growing, but that doesn’t mean we hate fewer things, it just means we have exchanged the items on the old list for new things. There is still plenty of stuff for Christians to hate. For example, we hate to sit down while singing in church. We hate to go to church on Sunday night. We hate to go to church on Sunday. Some of us hate to go to church, period. We hate one another’s politics. We hate the music in church if it’s not ours. Sometimes we even hate each other.

It’s a challenge to hate the right things. We often fail to get it right. Some of us don’t want to hate anything. Others hate everything. We seem to have a penchant foolish alliances, like Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. I sometimes wonder if the prophet would say to us what he said to him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?” In the end, our real problem it isn’t about what we hate at all. It’s about what we love.

Do Dogs go to Heaven?

Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.

Why Do Churches Put Up with Narcissistic Leaders?

Another high profile pastor has been accused of abusive leadership. The story is so familiar to us by now that it has become monotonous. We are sorry, but we are not surprised. Or maybe we are not sorry. The debacle holds a macabre fascination for us. Like watching a horrific accident while it is in progress, we can’t look away. The fall of a great leader appeals to our egalitarian sensibilities. We like to see the mighty cut down. Americans love to hate their leaders. The story of abusive leaders has become so familiar by now that we ought to ask a question. Why do churches tolerate such pastors? Churches stick with abusive leaders for the same reasons people remain in other abusive relationships.

We are Attracted to Them

No church that is looking for a pastor says to itself, “Hey, I know! Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” Churches give a lot of thought to the characteristics they want to see in their pastor, and most of them are good. Nobody who decides to attend a church is thinking, “Where can I find an abusive pastor today?” The church is drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive to us. Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things for the church. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Those who see through the hype recognize it as pretentiousness. But for churches who are hoping for a messianic leader, narcissistic style can be very appealing. These churches are willing to tolerate the abuse in the hope that the pastor will lead them into the Promised Land of ministry success.

They Reward Us

Any co-dependent relationship is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. We enable narcissistic behavior because we get something from the leader. Sometimes the reward is small. It may only be that we are addicted to the adrenaline of crisis that comes with this style of leadership. Or maybe we like the pastor’s preaching. Churches tolerate narcissistic leadership behavior because they fear that no one else will be able to produce the same results. Churches with narcissistic leaders are often so identified with the pastor that his departure will have a negative effect on attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it is to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. Churches enable narcissistic leaders by developing social systems that reinforce their abuse.  Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with other leaders who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. Because narcissistic leadership comes with perks and special treatment, the inner circle often gets rewarded along with the leader. The result is a co-dependent loop which blinds those who should be responsible for holding the narcissist accountable.

We are Afraid of Them

Narcissistic leaders are bullies. They develop organizational cultures which are marked by fear and punishment. Church members who question their agenda or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 & 11, those who criticize the pastor are sometimes warned not to “raise their hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.” Narcissists use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture of fear which silences objections and penalizes objectors. There is always a cost to those who challenge a narcissistic leader.

What You Can Do About It

What can you do, if you believe your church has a culture of narcissistic leadership? First, pray for divine intervention. This sounds overly simplistic, but it is the most important strategy for dealing with a narcissistic pastor. Narcissistic leaders are extremely difficult to correct. They do not see themselves as narcissists. They do not understand why others criticize their motives and actions. They explain away criticism by attributing it to Satanic attack. Churches with deeply entrenched narcissistic leaders need to ask God to bring the true nature of its dysfunctional leadership to light.  In most cases, things get worse before they get better.

Second, refuse to cooperate with the co-dependent dynamics of the church’s narcissistic culture. You have no control over the narcissist. You cannot force a narcissistic leader to see himself as a narcissist. But you can introduce an element of disequilibrium into the culture by not participating in the game. Dysfunctional cultures are a kind of dance. Everybody has to keep in step. When you refuse to follow the dysfunctional rules you create a dynamic that makes change possible. The foundational rule in a dysfunctional culture is the code of silence. We break that rule by speaking the truth in love. But recognize that there is a cost to this.

Finally, look for a healthier church. This is extremely hard, especially if you have invested your life in the church. Your friends and your ministry are there. Nobody likes to start over. Sometimes the best thing to do in a church system which tolerates narcissistic leadership is to leave. If the pastor is deeply entrenched and surrounded by a team that protects him, you should look to your own spiritual wellbeing. Nobody likes to leave a church. But sometimes it’s the wisest and safest thing to do.

Narcissism appears to be a deceptively tame sin. We tend to think of narcissists as buffoons that everyone can see through. In reality, narcissistic leaders are profoundly damaging to the church.  They are bullies and spiritual abusers who demand that that church serve them. They are the kind of shepherds the Lord condemns in Ezek. 34:2-3: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Chris Fabry about narcissistic leadership.

Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.

Writing and Rejection

I was going through some things the other day and came across what we used to call a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It’s something we writers used to include when we sent out our manuscripts in the days before email. First, you sent a query letter outlining your article (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply in the envelope you had enclosed. Sometimes they wanted to see your piece. More often they did not.

If the editor was interested, you sent the manuscript, in a larger envelope (with a SASE enclosed). After a few weeks (or even months) an editor would send a reply. If the news was good, the reply would come on their own stationery and in one of their own envelopes. If it wasn’t, you got your own envelope back along with the manuscript. I don’t know what they did with the stamps. Most of the time the news was bad.

I had forgotten how long the process took. I haven’t forgotten how bad the rejection felt. It was like asking someone out on a date and being turned down. Or perhaps more accurately, it was like proposing and hearing your intended say no. Curtly. Without any real explanation. Except for that expression on her face which seemed to say, “As if!”

The experience of rejection was soul crushing. I felt embarrassed every time. I wondered if I was foolish to think that I could be published. Determined to never put myself in such a vulnerable position again, I vowed to give up writing. My resolve usually lasted for a few months. Sometimes for a whole year. Then at some point, an idea would come to me. Well, maybe this time. . . .

The envelope I found the other day was postmarked, open, and empty. It would have brought a rejection. I don’t know where I sent it or what kind of manuscript it contained. But I am sure that I sent it with great expectation, certain that the editor would want to publish my words.

I suppose there are other professions whose practitioners experience just as much rejection as writers. Movie stars, professional athletes, and people who run for president (or get elected) come to mind. But I’ve never wanted to be any of those. Not really. I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Keeping it Real

Of all the holidays, I have always found the celebration of the New Year to have the least appeal. Maybe this is because of its proximity to Christmas. The New Year’s holiday seems drab to me. It does not offer much. Oh, there is always a football game or two. There are chips and dip on the coffee table. Millennials get to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and wonder who Dick Clark is. Then, of course, there is that smattering of automatic weapon fire at midnight. But none of this is particularly unusual. The truth is, we pretty much have it all year round, including the weaponry.

Some people look forward to the New Year because they see in it a new beginning. The New Year is a blank page upon which they can write anything they wish. For some reason, it always speaks to me of the end of things. That is especially true this year because it marks my last year as a faculty member at the college where I teach. I will be retiring at the end of the school year.

When I asked one of my retired friends what the experience was like he said, “It’s like death. It just goes on and on.” I don’t believe he meant it to sound as depressing as it did. What he was really saying was that retirement is like a permanent vacation. At least, I hope that’s what he was saying. But to tell you the truth, I’m also finding it hard to talk to people about my impending retirement in a way that doesn’t sound depressing to them. If I mention it, they respond with a note of dismay. “You can’t retire,” they tell me, employing the same tone of voice people use for those who have just been diagnosed with a serious illness. “Everybody’s got an expiration date,” I say.

Some people (my children and my wife) have told me that this is a morbid reply. I thought it was realistic. Over the years I’ve found that many people confuse realism with morbidity. “You’re just a ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of guy,” one of my optimistic friends said to me not long ago. “No,” I replied patiently, “I am just a realist.”

I must admit that realists see the world differently from optimists. A realist watching Adam fall into sin in the Garden of Eden says, “Oh crap, we’re all dead now.” An optimist says, “At least we can have apple pie while we wait.”
Optimists are chronically enthusiastic. It is one of the things that makes them so irritating. “Dial it down” I want to say. “Don’t you know that there is a galaxy heading in our direction that will crash into the Milky Way and send the earth flying into interstellar space?”

They think I am being allegorical. No, I am not. I am being literal. It’s what realists do. They keep it real. There is a galaxy headed our way that will smash into the Milky Way and destroy the earth. We’ve only got about eight billion years left. I know that this is true because I read it on the Internet today.

The Bible says that when King Hezekiah got sick to the point of death, the prophet Isaiah came to visit him. “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” Despite the source, Hezekiah refused to accept such a pessimistic prognosis. He turned his face to the wall and prayed. “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” God sent the prophet back to Hezekiah to say that the king could have fifteen more years. To an optimist, that would be good news. A realist would start counting them down.

Sometime after this the king of Babylon sent emissaries to Hezekiah. He had recovered by then and was happy to show them around the palace. He showed them everything. His bank account. His IRA. The monster truck in his garage. He showed them all his stuff. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t show them.

“Who were those guys?” Isaiah the prophet wanted to know after Hezekiah had walked them to the door. “Just some guys from Babylon” Hezekiah said. “What did you show them?” the prophet asked. “Everything!” the king said cheerily.

“You know what the Lord told me?” Isaiah said. “The time is going to come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

“That’s great!” Hezekiah said. “It means that there will be peace for the rest of my life!”

That’s optimism for you.

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks

Annunciation to the Shepherds

Two shepherds were seated before a small fire. They alternated between making small talk and sitting in silence, like those who are long acquainted. There beyond the glowing rim of the firelight, the flock was huddled in congregation. The men too were huddled against the chill of night, wearing wool and leaning into the flames.

High above, the wheeling stars winked in and out, flickering like candles as they calculated the number of Abraham’s offspring. In the black distance beyond the flock, a night bird cried out in indignation, surprised by a wolf who had come near. He eyed the sheep hungrily. He had been watching them for two nights now. But when another figure appeared unexpectedly at the edge of the shepherd’s camp, the wolf turned and fled. 

There had been no shuffle of approaching footsteps, only a sudden flare of light as if one of them had stirred the fire. The stranger stepped across the threshold, and the shepherds shrank back in alarm. One of them scrabbled for his staff and raised it in defense as the other cowered. But the stranger only laughed good-naturedly.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I come bearing good news. It is news of a great joy for all the people. This very day in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds looked at one another and then back at the figure, who by now was lit so brightly that they had to shade their eyes to see him. The light radiated from him the way heat does when it shimmers off the rocks in the desert sun. ”This will be a sign to you,” he continued.  “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

By now the whole field was lit so that the tiny camp looked like a city in flames. In its glow, the shepherds realized that the angel was not alone. There was a whole troop with him, standing in ranks. “Glory to God in the highest” they shouted. They sounded like an army cheering their captain after some victory. “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” The cry made the shepherds want to cheer too.

Then as if in response to some command, the angel leaped into the air and the rest of the host followed suit. In the space of a breath, they were gone. The winking stars appeared again. There was a pop as sparks flew up from their fire. And the shepherds were left staring into the night sky.

 “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about,” one of them said. The other grunted his assent. The flock had scattered because of the commotion. Their plaintive bleating could be heard in the distance. But the two men paid them no mind. They hurried off into the night, leaving their staffs behind.

Joseph’s Dream

Joseph was awake, just as he had been every night since Mary told him the news. He shook his head at the recollection, just as he had every time he thought about it. Mary was pregnant. He thought he knew her. He was sure he knew her. How could he have been so wrong?

Joseph considered getting out of bed and trying to work but it was late. The noise would surely wake the neighbors. Besides, he couldn’t concentrate. He had tried all day, only to realize that he was staring and shaking his head. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Joseph was grateful for the distraction. But in a moment it all came rushing back. Mary came back to Nazareth after visiting relatives in the hill country of Judah for three months. The trip had been sudden, without explanation. Joseph hadn’t thought much about it at the time. Perhaps Mary had gone to see her cousin Elizabeth for advice about marriage.

When Mary returned, she was a different woman. She went away a virgin and came home pregnant. Of course, Joseph refused to accept it when he was told. How could he do otherwise? But Mary insisted. She did not blush. “An angel appeared to me,” she explained with a smile. Joseph could tell that she expected him to believe her explanation. “The angel told me that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and the power of the Most High would overshadow me,” she said. “And he did! The child I am carrying is the son of God!”

Joseph shook his head again at the memory. It wasn’t possible. How could it be? He was sure there was some other explanation. A drunken Roman soldier who overpowered Mary and took advantage of her on the road, perhaps. Maybe Mary had concocted this unbelievable story out of fear that Joseph would call off their betrothal. The pregnancy could not have been voluntary. Mary had been forced. He was sure of it. She must have been! The story she told seemed like something only a lunatic would say. 

Joseph had said nothing to her at the time. He was afraid to. He simply turned on his heel and walked out the door. He spent the rest of the day working furiously. As if work could somehow make everything go away. He desperately wanted things to go back to the way they were before Mary’s trip. But things would never be the same between them again. How could they? People in the village were beginning to talk. There were awkward questions from some of his customers. Mary was starting to show.

The dog barked again. Then it yelped. Maybe some sleeping householder had thrown a rock to frighten it away, Joseph thought. The thought made him uncomfortable. He was a man of faith. He knew what the Rabbi would say. Joseph would have to divorce Mary. He also knew what kind of punishment the Law of Moses prescribed for Mary’s situation. Unless she could prove that the thing had happened against her will, Mary could be liable to the death penalty. A public divorce would lead to a trial and if Mary persisted with this ridiculous story of hers a public trial was likely to lead to death by stoning.

People would say that it served her right. He supposed that he should be angry. Maybe even pleased that such a fate awaited her. But he only felt helpless. He did not want to see Mary disgraced publically. He did not want her to die. So Joseph made his decision. He would divorce Mary. But quietly. There would be no trial. No public disgrace. He didn’t know how the two of them could continue to live in the same village. Maybe he would move. He would think about that later. 

The decision made, Joseph lay in the dark as sleep finally overtook him. For the first time since he had heard the news, he felt calm. A night breeze stole in through the window, carrying with it the scent from a vagrant patch of daffodils which had sprung up nearby. Only then did Joseph notice the figure standing at the foot of his bed.

Joseph sensed more than saw him. It was shadow upon shadow. Joseph felt his presence but could not make out his face or form. Joseph tried to move but it was as if all his limbs were paralyzed. He tried to speak. But could not make a sound. Was someone there or not? Then the figure spoke. His voice was reassuring as if he had overheard Joseph’s tortured deliberation. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” he said. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All the arguments Joseph had already marshaled against such an explanation rose up within him. He would have interrupted if he could speak. But he was still frozen in place. Unable to move. Unable to utter a sound.

As though the angel heard Joseph’s unspoken objection, he said, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” His tone was patient but firm. The kind one might use when explaining some simple fact to a child. The sort that a teacher uses to remind a student of something they should already know. At the mention of the child’s name, Joseph understood. The child that is to be born will be called “God with us.” Suddenly it all seemed so clear to him. And so obvious. Why hadn’t he seen it before? 

At once Joseph was awake and alert. His heart felt light, like one who has awakened after a long illness and for the first time in weeks is feeling whole. Joseph leaped from his bed and dressed in haste, the first rose light of dawn just beginning to glimmer on the horizon. His plan had been to go to the Rabbi at first light. But instead, he flew down the path in the opposite direction. Towards Mary’s house. His steps set the dog to barking again. He could hear someone calling out Mary’s name over and over. Joseph laughed when he recognized the voice as his own.