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“In our own lives, too, we all too often deny the grace we’ve been given in barren places…Sooner or later, we must learn to deal with the cards we have been given, and look for the grace that is hidden in our loss.” – Kathleen Norris
When I see them sitting there in the third row, near the front, it feels like a sword piercing my heart. Family members flank them on each side, as if buoying them up. I notice he is holding his wife’s hand.
I’m reciting Luke 1:26-38 from memory, the story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appears to a confused and frightened Mary and announces that she has found favor with God, and that the Savior of the world will be cradled in her womb.
When I get to this line from Gabriel, “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…,” there’s a pause in my spirit. It takes everything within me to say it out loud. When I open my mouth, the words sound so different in this context. Not a joyous announcement but cruel words, words that sting like salt in a wound. I can’t look at the couple, sitting there so brave and so broken.
The day before I sat with them in his shop out on the acreage. He had texted me and asked if I could come out to talk. She must have seen my car parked in the driveway because soon she walked from the house to the shop and joined us.
He took her hand and they told me the story. How she went in for a regular check-up, twenty weeks along. They knew the routine. This would be child number four. The nurse did an ultra-sound, a baby boy, but something was drastically wrong. She couldn’t find a heartbeat.
They scheduled her for a D&C. But the night before the procedure, the baby came naturally. In their home, with just the two of them. The other children were staying with grandpa and grandma. They delivered their baby together, in the bathroom tub, and held their son in their arms. He was perfect, they told me. His tiny toes and fingers, his ruddy and beautiful little face, all scrunched up like any newborn. He looked just like his brother. Except no heartbeat.
They named him. They named the son they held in their arms Isaac. It was the name that came to them.
The name in Hebrew means “laughter.” And while there was no laughter in all of this, only sorrow like sea billows, there was gift. There was grace, they told me. To hold their son, to look upon his face, to whisper words of love and blessing over him through tears and heartbreak. They just might be the bravest young couple I’ve ever met.
And here they are this morning, sitting in church, surrounded by their family. And here I am, looking out at the congregation, staring at them in my heart but unable to look at them with my eyes, reciting this familiar story of our Christmas hope. But right now the words don’t sound all that hopeful to me. “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son….”
I don’t understand it, Lord. You were kind and gracious enough to spare another child named Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. Why would you not spare this Isaac, son of this couple whom I love and am called to pastor?
And that’s when it hits me, as I’m reciting this story of the Annunciation. Here you have a frightened Mary who receives the unexpected news that her womb would be full with the presence of a son. And you have a grieving couple, a young woman who now finds her womb empty because of the loss of a son. And yet somehow, the Spirit hovers over both. Somehow, the Savior is present in both. In the womb full and in the womb now empty. This is Advent.
Could it be that Christ is present in the emptiness, that grace still finds its way into barren places? That hope can still be born in a place where all hope seems lost?
I come to the end of the Scripture, where Mary speaks her humble response of surrender. And at last I look at them, and I see in the eyes of this couple something I can’t describe or explain. But it gives me courage. She nods, ever so slightly, as if to say, “Go on, finish it.”
And in the midst of pain and loss and emptiness and lament…grace finds its way into this barren place. I speak the words aloud. Mary’s words, words that become our own. Words that arise out of a place of desperation and longing so real and so raw it can only be called faith:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Thank you to the couple who gave me permission to share such a personal and tender story in this post. May the Savior and Healer continue to meet you in this barren place and renew you with grace and hope as you grieve. You truly are one of the bravest couples I know, and it is a gift to be your pastor.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.