letters to jackson

dear jackson, there is no bridge but the thread of patience

Dear Jackson,

This is the first day you will be back in our home; this is the last letter I will write to you here.

I want to tell you something about hope. I want to write you something beautiful. I want to do a work of a kind, something people will reference again and again, words that stick to insides and remain haunting the corners of a soul for years:

And then the word passed between them that made all clear. Isn't it pretty to think so? It will happen to you. You don't think it will, but it will happen to you. And that's what I'm here to tell you. In this world there is a kind of painful progress. If anyone should ask me why I say I think it's pretty, I think it's pretty I reply. This is not a love story. Breathe! Through the ivory gate. Of bodies changed to other forms, I tell.

These are the lines, Jack. Some of them. I can tell you where each are from, strewn there akimbo, a kind of prosody of collective memory. These are the lines that stick to my insides and I want to write you something like them. I want that so much, I don't think I'll end up doing it. You can't want for that sort of thing, it happens off stage in accident of pen, in letters found centuries later, in the record of our neglects to have seen at the time the beauty there.

And the beauty is. And the beauty is.

Another line.

Jacks, your story is entering a kind of quiet, the ark of us three, days in rooms previously only familiar to you through sound and tilt of self, the narration of your mother pacing across wood floors mid-afternoon, telling you about the philosophy of disagreement, how we handle information we don't believe to be true.

"You can never go anywhere without his oxygen. You can never go anywhere without his pulse oximeter."

The person supplying your medical equipment said this to your mom and I a few days ago. We smiled politely back, looked at each other, looked back at him. He's not familiar with you, Jack. He reads tracheostomy in a case report and thinks it means a whole host of things that for you it doesn't. He was a bit flustered, too, with how much about you we knew.

We knew how many milliliters of breastmilk you take through your feeding tube and at what rate. We knew the difference between you being on oxygen flow with humidification and being on a vent. We knew what you actually needed with you at all times—or, in your case, within reasonable reach—and we knew the unique position you are in. You are, as one of your nurses put it, "The ideal candidate for growing out of a trach."

We know these things Jack. We've spent around forty days in these rooms learning you and learning what you need. Yesterday, your mom and I felt your chest, the small vibration in your lungs, and looked at each other knowingly. It's the season for congestion, which isn't good your trach, so we sanitized the side table, laid out the supplies, divided the wells of sterile water and cleanser, propped you up on a pillow, and forty seconds later you had a new trach tube placed where the old one had been.

Revision in the text!

Yet another line.

I wrote the above earlier yesterday and stopped. Something felt wrong in the meter of it and going back through I can see what it was. I can see myself for who I am. Jacks, it may be the will of God that the hardest thing you will ever know is the mortality of your parents. That's a harder truth to confront than you'll think when you first read this, I suspect. But that is the way of things. That it is the way of things is the hardest part. I started writing you a letter that placed your mom and I at the center of your care and the center of your world while the Good Shepherd faced away from me in your crib.

Would you believe me, Jack, if I told you that for the many weeks we have kept the icon of him in your crib, I have heard him more than once say, "Put me where I can see him."

Wait, let me take a step back. Let me actually confess. A little while ago your mom and I stopped watching a TV show because there was a segment making fun of fundamentalist charismatics. The critique was appropriate, was fair, but something was off about it. She and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made us so uncomfortable until, a few hours later, we saw it for what it was: "They don't know who we know."

It was an altogether factual dismantling of some serious problems, but it lacked a kind of truthfulness. It's one thing to call fraud, it's another to call fraud because you care about Jesus.

The details of which show it was is not important, what is important is the conviction. Conviction is a personal thing, Jack. Not every Christian shares the same one. In fact, I happen to believe very much the Holy Spirit sometimes likes a diversity in our convictions, even our disagreement about them. (I'm getting off track here, I know.)

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.

Another line.

Jackson, whose name means God has been gracious, I tried to write a post without acknowledging the real undercurrent of these forty days, the real reason nurses and doctors and medical supply personnel marvel: because they encounter in you that person we know.

I've been thinking about a poem of Charles Tomlinson, called "Eden." (These, the last lines I'll share.) At its end, Tomlinson is recounting our attempts to return to that forgotten place:

There is no
    Bridge but the thread of patience, no way
But the will to wish back Eden, this leaning
    To stand against the persuasions of a wind
That rings with its meaninglessness where it sang its meaning.

There's a lot happening in these lines, Jacks. The sorts of things that happen over years and decades. Meaning is a shifting thing, and what these lines meant to me five years ago is different and yet the same as they mean to me now. Hope, Tomlinson suggests, is all there is to do. Wait it out. Wait out the disappointment of a world that is not Eden. Wait out and wish. Wish back that paradise.

Wishing. Is that what we did for those twenty weeks before you were born? Were all those prayers for your complete healing just wishes? I imagine it looks that way to some people. I imagine it looks that way even to some people who have faith. I imagine they spend time when they least expect to be doing so wondering if all they had been doing was wishing, like children, on falling stars and clover leaves.

I don't have an answer, Jack. That's the hard truth of it. I don't have an answer except that we prayed the way God told us to and we didn't stop after you were born. We prayed our way into your tracheostomy and your feeding tube. We prayed our way through learning how to take care of you. We prayed our way through countless conversations and bedside diagnoses and doubts and fears.

"Put me where I can see him."

The Good Shepherd and I don't talk much these days. We're working on it, I think. I'm working on it, I think. There is still so much about God I do not know. But I know the Good Shepherd walked us into the midst of this, out on these waters of faith that your life is as rich and full and abundant as he intended and intends, and when we wavered and wondered and wanted to stop, he called out, "Do not be afraid. It is I."

Maybe I don't know who I know, Jack. Maybe that's the part of your parents' mortality that is the hardest to hear. But there is a truthful way of telling your story, behind the facts of the events.

Here is a truth I know: the Good Shepherd keeps his eyes on you.

Consider the lilies.

I know. Another line. It's from the Gospel reading the day you were born.

His eyes is on the sparrow.

Yet another.

And I know he watches me.

Do I know?

There's a factual way of telling this story and there is a truthful one.

Jack. Here is the truth: there is no bridge but the thread of patience. God doesn't let us just be done. There is no arriving at one point and saying it is satisfied. There is always but one more thing. The beauty is. The beauty is, Jack. This is the beauty: that the beauty is.

I'm losing the threads and this is bleeding into the form of fiction. Here, let me try one last time:

What I want you to know most in this world is that not one thing is ever lost. What I want you to know is how there is an accounting for everything. I want you to know that your mom and I have met more nurses and doctors and servers at restaurants who tell us we are so happy and so kind in the midst of so much and that maddening reminder of my mother has never made more since than now: always be ready to give a reason for the hope in you.

Sometimes I don't know who I know, Jack, but I do know I can trust him. I know I can trust him with you. I know he sees you. I know there is no walking with him without the thread of patience. I know I can't see how all of this is working together, piece by piece, to draw people to himself, but I know it is. I know this is not a wish in vain. I know that in the foundations of the world, in the fabric of all that is, there is one constant and one alone: the wish to united to him. The wish to be whole in him. The beauty is, Jack. He is the beauty.

What have I said here? This is the last public letter and I have monologued about things that matter maybe only to me, that reflect the unpracticed work of typing out words these past weeks.

I look into your eye, Jack, and I see the whole of all that is and has been and shall be. I look into your eye and I see him, looking back at me. We're working on talking. I'm working on talking. We'll get there. He and I find each other eventually. We always do. He finds us all. That's another hard thing to learn, too.

Jackson, whose name means God has been gracious, here is the truthful way of telling this story. No matter how often your father doesn't understand Jesus, doesn't want to talk to him, doesn't want to deal with him, this is what you should know: nothing compares to knowing Jesus and Jesus wants everyone to know him.

He and I still have some talking to do about the cost of that work.

He reminds me often he knows something about the cost.

You are beautiful, Jackson David, and you are made in the image and likeness of the Good Shepherd. There is no bridge but the thread of patience Jack, to walk beside him in each season, sometimes a little behind, sometimes beside, talking when you can.

Remember that, sometime, when you think prayer is a wish. Trust me. I know him.


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dear jackson, about king jesus

Dear Jackson,

They don't let you wear rings in the NICU. They don't tell you that beforehand. Mom and I think it's a good idea that we have our tattoos. So there, among the beeps and the soft shuffle of nurses' feet, we have a kind of sign that we belong to each other. And you, with your ginger tufts of hair and watchful eye are a sign we belong to you.

Jack, you're here! Just over a week and a half old! You're here and you've got a few things we have to watch out for, bud. A few reasons we had to learn that detail about rings in the NICU. You have difficultly breathing because of your jaw and nose; that makes swallowing food hard, too. Mom and I shared about that here, along with a way for our friends to help us help you. People have been so generous, Jack. That needs to be a part of your story, too: from the beginning, people from all over have loved you. They have wanted to see you have everything you need.

Jack, your mom and I have written you so many letters up to this point, all about praying for your healing. You were born, miracle you are, and it seems that healing did not come. We've had a handful of people in our inbox, in our texts, asking us what now. People feel a bit betrayed, I think. They thought it would happen. There was a kind of momentum to it. Then you were born—beautiful, extraordinary, radiant you—but you had the challenges they thought that prayer was going to take away.

I don't have a lot of answers, Jackson. It's been a week and a half and I don't have much to say. I've asked God all the questions everyone else has asked. I don't have better answers than they do. Except perhaps this, a moment that haunts my thoughts every time I hold you under the watch of the icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd we keep in your crib in the NICU.

Only once in my life can I claim to have had a vision, Jack. And, as visions go, it was a pretty safe one. Your mom and I were with our bishop and his wife praying for you, way back when we first found out you might have some challenges. We were in the sanctuary of our church, with the big modern icons of Jesus, sitting under the gaze of the Good Shepherd. And for a moment I saw Jesus. I saw Jesus not as the Good Shepherd, but as the icon across the room, and he was looking at me. He was looking at me pretty sternly. This icon of Jesus was Jesus the King, not gentle Jesus meek and mild. King Jesus said to me so loud I felt deafened by it: "I am the Good Shepherd, but I am also the King. What I say is to be accomplished is accomplished."

I don't know what that means, Jack. I used to assume a lot about what it could mean, but the could seems to change every day. I think I may have been pretty presumptive about it. Or perhaps not presumptive as much as wildly hopeful as any parent could be. That may be a finer line than I care to admit. But there is, I know now, a deep comfort to the words. Jesus is the King and what the King has said he will do will be done.

Your mom and I have heard God speak a lot about you, Jack. And while we asked for your eye and your ear and your cleft to be healed, while we hoped for those things, I want you to know that from the beginning we didn't put our trust in healing, but in the one who can heal. See, as we pray, we don't feel like a, "No," has been spoken over any of that just yet. Sure, it seems impossible and wildly fanciful, but if the King wants to do it, it can be done. And, in your hierarchy of needs, we care more about your breathing and feeding than everything else. You're beautiful just as you are. We'll worry heaven plenty on your behalf, but only because we want you to have everything you need, not because we're disappointed with who you are.

And that circles back to the bit about Jesus being the King. Jack, part of what made this week hard was being told so often that you would need a tracheostomy. There's a lot of doctors with a lot of opinions and even more opinions to be found, unhelpfully, on updates I post about you. Your mom and I have such peace about the trach if it's what you need, but we find ourselves daily resisting it, feeling deep in our guts that it's not right for you. When I tell you God has spoken a lot about you, Jack, what we have heard most is how much God cares for you, how much God has God's hand on you. It's not about an eye, an ear, or even a cleft. It's about the whole of you as you are right now.

Your mom and I have prayed for days about the tracheostomy, paced hallways, called parents, friends. And still, at least for now, the word seems consistent: this is not for you. I woke up this morning rehearsing what I would say to the surgical team at our consent meeting. A long speech about how your mom and I don't fear medicine, but they would have to be sure, completely sure, before they did this. They would have to assure us they would never lose sleep wondering if they had made the wrong decision. They would have to promise us. They would—

"I am the King!"

In the hotel this morning, Jack. I heard him again. "I am the King! What I say is to be accomplished is accomplished. I go before you and bring victory behind me. Do not look for the victory or trust in it, only look at me. Only trust me. I am coming. I am going before you. Trust me."

I asked your mom to pray and see what she heard without telling her about what I had heard myself. She reported back a similar word.

I've been reading the Gospel of Luke to you in the NICU, Jack. We've made it almost all the way through. Today, we were just about to begin Luke 18 when the tracheostomy nurse came by to explain what it would be like for you to have one. She's a kind woman, Jack, a hopeful woman, and when she was done she looked at your numbers and said she was really hopeful you wouldn't need one. Then she chatted with the NICU nurses who have been watching over you, who said that they too are hopeful you will not. Then they reported to their head, who asked specifically, "Can I have reason to hope he won't need one?" And they nodded. Your mom and I weren't exactly sure what to do, so we asked them to say those things for us when we met with the surgeons and doctors. "We'll be your advocates," they replied.

I go before you.

Then, they tell us they are moving the conference about what to do, including with the tracheostomy, to next Monday morning instead of tomorrow, giving more time for God to turn their hearts, to help them see you might not need this after all.

Do you know what Luke 18 opens with, Jack? The passage I was about to read you?

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I don't know a lot, Jackson, but I do know Jesus is the King. I know the King has promised blessing on your life. I know the King has listened to mom and I and literally thousands of others pray persistently, we who keep coming to God asking to see God's work in your tiny body. And I know that when the Son of Man comes, the King himself, whether at the end of all things or in a NICU, passing by your crib, he will find faith on this earth.

There is a long line of people praying for your good, Jack, and every person who has wondered why or if or why not their prayers weren't answered need take heart in one thing alone: Jesus is the King and victory is in his wake. But our eyes keep on the Savior. There is nothing too late or too wonderful for God.

They don't let you wear rings in the NICU and tattoos only tell so much. But the thread of hope woven between us, these nurses, this digital circle of voices lifted to God, this is an unbroken ring of light, this is cause to believe God is not done here, because Jack, the King is here.



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dear jackson, about your mother

Read other letters to Jackson, here.

Dear Jackson,

I want to tell you about your mother. You already know a lot about her: you know her voice, you know the way she moves, you know how much she loves you. There are things you can't quite understand yet, complicated things that in some ways maybe you won't ever understand until you're a parent, too. But I want a kind of record, so that someday you can return to this like the other letters and know her a bit as she was before she first held you.

Jack, your mother is brave. She will deny this and supply ready evidence to the contrary, but don't be fooled. What your mother doesn't remember about bravery or, more specifically, her own, is that Jesus doesn't ask the already brave to do brave things. Jesus asks the becoming brave to keep becoming. Jesus walks out on water and says, "Do not fear, it is I. Come walk out here with me." And Jack, I've watched your mother get out of that boat so many times.

A few weeks ago, Jesus came walking on the water and told your mom she needed to take another class this semester in addition to the one she was already planning on. She had lightened her load in anticipation of you, of what may be surgeries and time in the NICU if God does not heal you. Jesus said, "No, take the additional class." Your mom told me this on a long drive and I nodded, because your mom doesn't flippantly talk about hearing God. She registered for the class, and that was that.

And you know what happened? It didn't take long for someone who doesn't know your mom that well and, in some ways, I think, doesn't know Jesus very well, to say, "How are you going to be able to do that? How could you even consider it? Aren't you worried you'll fail?"

Here's something else to know about your mother, Jack—she is aggressively luminous. She can't help it. The light of God that radiates from her sometimes freaks people out. She's too kind, too generous, too welcoming. She believes big things for other people and eschews any attempt to recognize the same in her. But between you and me, there are people in this world who are afraid of that kind of light because there's some darkness in them that doesn't want to be found out. And not just the darkness we'd normally think of, but simple darkness like doubt that God could really do more than we can imagine. So they push back against the light. They push back with the same line that's been recycled for millennia: "Did God really say?"

I won't tell you your mom doesn't feel hurt by this. I won't tell you she doesn't have a moment of pause. But what I will tell you is how her heart breaks for people who won't imagine beyond what seems reasonable to their experience, who perhaps are resistant to the possibility of more because they fear what God might ask them to do if such things were indeed possible. These are some of the same people who talk about "pregnancy brain"—a highly questionable study that suggests women lose a portion of their brain capacity during pregnancy—and who want us to give them specifics about how your life is going to go, step-by-step, doctor by doctor.

It's foolishness, Jackson. It's the bread of idleness and the vice of curiosity.

And Jack, your mom is out there on the water with Jesus, staring back at all these people who would say you can't walk on water, and she doesn't quite know what to say. So she shrugs it off, sometimes cries it off, but each time she turns back to Jesus and says, "If this is you, tell me to walk on the water. If this is you, show me the way."

She has the sort of imagination I think God loves, Jack. She has the sort of imagination that isn't so ready to disbelieve what Jesus may in fact ask us to do.

Your mom is plenty wavering on the water, but she's unwavering on who she should ask if the water is where she's supposed to be. Your mom talks to Jesus like they're best friends and talks to others about Jesus like they could know him that way too. She shares more than a little with Mama Mary, having often said, "Be it unto me according to thy word." (Even though she won't admit it.) She's a poor recounter of her own faithfulness, but I've watched her time and again face questions of doubt and fear and expectations with the audacity to hope that, one day, when she is in the position of the questioner, her words would be of life and encouragement.

When your mom greets new people in her PhD program, she tells them they are going to survive and thrive. She doesn't make people feel like they can't do it, or politely distance them because academic jobs are scarce and the belief that God will provide within the field even more anemic. Your mom wants everyone to feel like they are seen by God, that they are beloved by God, that their desks can be altarpieces, and that they can do remarkable things.

I want you to know, Jack, that you're going to grow a lot of things in your mom and I, but that there were things already in us before you were even a thought. Something that was in your mother was her radiance, her want of good things for everyone. She is frustratingly unselfish and too often lets foolishness slide because the comeback doesn't seem worth it. (Maybe that's my own bias showing.) So whatever happens in you, Jack, if God miraculous heals you in birth or through the work of surgeons—you need to know you couldn't have a better mom when it comes to wanting good and beautiful things for each and every person, but especially you. Your circumstances did not call that out in her; your circumstances made it amplified.

She's a lighthouse on those waters, Jack. She's reminding us all it's okay to imagine getting out of the boat.

And then to actually do it.



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dear jackson, fear not

Read other letters to Jackson, here.

Dear Jackson,

It takes no great mathematician to figure out you were conceived around Christmas. You're due September 22nd and people since Genesis have counted back nine on their fingers every time a birth announcement is made. Now, someday I'll tell you more about this, I'll tell you the moment when your mom and I both knew, but for now I'll tell you this: God planned you.

Your mom and I were going to wait, were going to have things planned better—be out of debt, be buying a house, be a whole list of things more along than we are now. But there was a moment for each of us, separately, when the Spirit said, You are not to wait. There will be a child this time next year.

Before you were, you were, Jacks.

I return to this point often with God.I return to this particular peculiarity of your coming into being. Tomorrow is your fetal MRI. Tomorrow we are going to have a lot of pictures made of you. They'll figure out how severe your cleft lip is, the palate as best they can, confirm you don't have your right eye, and take a look at your brain. They'll take a lot of pictures and then we'll wait a few days for a phone call. In a month, we'll meet with the plastic surgeon and the speech pathologist and they'll tell us what they think the plan will be.

I paced downtown yesterday on the phone, telling a good friend of mine about you. I told him about the MRI and about God saying to your mom and I that you were supposed to be born. I told him, too, about praying for your healing.

That's been harder these days, Jacks. It's been harder because I don't want to be unprepared. I want to make sure you have everything you need. I want to make sure you're taken care of. Three ultrasounds now, seeing your face on the screen—even though you still won't fully show us the cleft—I should just accept that this is how it's going to be for you, shouldn't I?

I try. I try hard to do that. But after the first few moments of the comfort of resignation, God taps me, Have I told you to stop praying for this?

Jackson, I know so little about God. I know so little about why I can't let go of praying for your healing. It's confusing. It's a bit maddening. See, I'm not worried about how you'll look. I'm not worried about how you'll sound or hear. You're not less whole, not less you if healing comes in the form of trained surgeons and careful doctors. These, too, are the friends of Jesus along with the cadre of saints interceding for us. So if I'm so comfortable with all that, why does the impulse linger? Why does the fixed hope not uproot?

I didn't always love the psalms, Jacks, not the way you know me to love them now. I found them boring and frustrating. It wasn't until you the psalms began to make a certain kind of sense. I pray a litany of them over you every night, my hand on your mom's stomach, upon you, and I find the psalms have a power I hadn't known before:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

It could easily have been:

Some trust in ultrasounds and some in geneticists,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

The psalms are fierce in their confidence, Jacks. The psalms pray boldly because they know something about God most of us have forgotten. Someday I'll tell you the story of Jacob, later called Israel, who wrestled with an angel of God. Jacob would have won, it seems, had the angel not wounded him at the end. The rabbis say this soberly reminds us of two things: Israel is the nation that gets to wrestle with God face to face; and, in doing so, they walk with a limp. That intimacy comes with a cost.

In and through Jesus, we're a part of that family. We're a part of the family that gets to wrestle with God. Our prayers get to be big and powerful and bold and wild, too. We get to remind God of the promises God has made. We get to tell God our anger, our fear, our doubt. We get to ask for the impossible because we have been invited to grapple with the Impossible all the time.

And so it makes sense that after the first ultrasound, after the first visit, I would pray big and impossible for your healing. I told God so often about how God was the one who said you were to be born, so God needs to take care of you. I asked big because God is big. I'm so sure of that. But after awhile, it seems silly to pray for it, doesn't it? It seems after the second ultrasound, the third, it's time to let it go.

They forgot God's works and the wonders God had shown them.

That's from another psalm.

Sunday was hard, Jacks. It was hard because we just want to hold you, we want to keep you close, we want to know exactly what is going on with you and do whatever we can to make sure you're okay. Your mom and I stood in church and held each other, weeping because we don't know why God seems so out of reach, so quiet. As long as you're okay, it's enough. No matter what happens, no matter what doesn't happen.

I told my friend on the phone all of this, then I told him the rest.

I told him how about how when your mom and I first found out, we had a private Eucharist and time of prayer with our bishop and his wife. I told him about how during that time of prayer I had a vision of Jesus the King, who looked me through and said, "I am the Good Shepherd, but I am also the King. What I say is accomplished is accomplished."

I told him about the way people have prayed for your mom, you, and me. I told him about how no one seems to quite feel that this is a settled thing. I told him about the passages of Scripture; about how praying for you like this before you're born is a different sort of thing than praying for you like this after you're here; I told him about the people who have had visions of you; I told him about the nearness of Mary these days, the knowing that there is a company in heaven praying for us, for you.

I told him all of this and then I told him the hardest truth: when you're someone who sees the signs of God everywhere in the world all the time, everything is a sign until suddenly nothing is.

See, Jacks, I want all those Scriptures, those visions, those moments to mean something very specific. I want you to be healed. I want that. So I want all of those things to be a kind of evidence, proof-text, surety.

Some trust in visions and some in feelings,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

But the truth is, I haven't gotten a yes or a no from God about this.

Maybe that's the limp. Maybe the limp is the God who speaks but does not clarify.

I hung up the phone and sat vigil in the stillness while your mom read for comps.

And you know what I heard, Jacks?

It takes no great mathematician to figure out you were conceived around Christmas. And what is the message of Christmas? What is the message of a child God says will be born when parents otherwise didn't have plans for it?

Fear not.

Fear not the diagnosis. Fear not the MRI. Fear not the surgery. Fear not the waiting. Fear not the rest of his life. Fear not the work he is to do.

Fear not, fear not, fear not.

This is God's answer today, Jackson, the night before your MRI: fear not.

I want to have it recorded somewhere. I want to have written down somewhere the why when people ask how we're not so sad, how we're not so grieved.

The answer is because the Lord has spoken.

Because the same Lord who announced to us it was time and right and good for you to come into being is the same Lord who will see you through.

It is the same Lord who told me not to stop praying.

It is the same Lord who told me that he is the King.

It is the same Lord who no matter what an MRI does or does not show will be your guide behind and before every day of your life.

Your mom and I don't trust in chariots or horses, Jacks. We trust in the Name of the Lord our God, we trust in God's good work in you, and we, through Jesus, fear not. Whatever does or does not happen, Jackson: fear not.

We'll keep walking with that limp, but we'll keep walking with the same Lord.

Fear not.



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dear jackson, what it means to be healed

About a month ago, we found out our first son, Jackson, would be born with a severe facial cleft affecting the palate and causing his right eye not to form. You can read about that here.

Dear Jackson,

We found out about you on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

We were planning on volunteering in the community garden of a historically black church in east Waco, but your mom and I delayed a few minutes so she could take one of the just-in-case pregnancy tests we kept under the bathroom sink. It probably won't surprise you I was listening to the soundtrack of a musical when your mom walked around the couch I was sitting on like it was Jericho, the same way she did a few years before when I asked her to marry me.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

I kept playing the soundtrack in the car when we drove the opposite direction of the church to the grocery store, where we bought five more tests. Your mother took all five of them, in rapid succession. While most said it would be a good minute before we had a result, every last one read pregnant or two lines or emoji child within seconds. You have, from your earliest days, been fiercely assertive of your existence.

Your mom and I sat on the couch for awhile, grinning like fools. Scared fools. Not scared of you, but scared of what it meant to be parents. What it meant to try and care for a tiny human. All the while knowing there was still the ordinary of our lives to do: your mom had class the next day, a special seminar session she had to go to that afternoon; I was on deadline for something, though I forget what.

Then several months later, we found out about your cleft, your unformed right eye, and we were scared for different reasons. Again, we weren't scared of you. We were scared because we wanted to make sure you had everything you ever needed, that you were taken care of, that whatever help or treatment or option could, might be—we would find it. I've already written you about those days, those first days of finding out, how we joked about eyepatches and cried when we didn't know if you were okay.

I don't want to tell you that part of the story again. I want to tell you about the day we found out.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

The cast recording I was listening to that day was for the musical Violet.

Violet is the story of a young woman who sets out to beg a television preacher to restore her face. When she was young, her father, a lumberman, slipped while sawing a piece of wood that Violet was holding on one end. The saw slid down the frame and sliced open her face. They were up on a high mountain, in a remote town, and though her father ran her down as fast as he could, the town doctor may have been a bit drunk stitching her face back together, leaving Violet healed but disfigured. And so Violet boards a bus headed to claim her miracle of healing—to look normal, as she thinks of it—on September 4, 1964. (Twenty-five years before my birthday, if we're attending to details.)

Along the way, Violet meets two army servicemen, Monty, a smooth-talking white man, and Flick, a kindhearted black man. Violet bonds with them over poker, which her dad taught her to play as a way to make friends with men despite her looks. Violet reveals to Monty and Flick her intentions to become an amalgamation of every beautiful woman she has ever seen, expecting all she needs to do is have the preacher pray and she'll get it. Monty treats Violet's hopes as foolish, while Flick tries to explain he doesn't think Violet needs any healing. After all, it's just how she looks. She's not sick. She's not dying.

I'm going to skip over a good deal here, because it involves some complicated choices of adulthood I'd rather you not dwell on just yet. But suffice it to say after a good deal of effort, Violet does meet the television preacher, who tell hers she doesn't need a miracle because she doesn't need to be healed. Her face is not a disease. Her condition is not hopeless. Violet, enraged, begins to shout every prayer and Scripture she knows, grabbing the hands of the preacher and forcing them on her face. After this, she shouts that she has been healed and runs off. She makes her way back to a bus station where she's to meet Monty—the smooth talker she talked to a bit too much—and when she presents herself to him, convinced she has been healed, he sighs, shakes his head, and pities her for surely finally seeing what he always knew: she was never going to be healed, religion is just a joke.

Overcome with grief that her face is still the same, Violet refuses to see Monty anymore, fleeing from him. Monty considers going after her, but proves himself as he always was: a certain kind of coward. Flick shows up then, and, finding Violet, reiterates to her what he said all along: she didn't need her face to be healed. She had already been healed and was healing. Flick, as a black man in the 60s, knows a thing or two about how the way a face looks can feel like an affliction, when it is anything but. In the closing song, Violet, Flick, and the cast reconcile how maybe what God gives in healing isn't always physical, because what we assume needs healing isn't always what needs healing. Healing is sometimes, and maybe more often than not, the gift of seeing each other as we really are: whole even when we don't so quickly see that for ourselves.

What makes all this so powerful, Jack, is that the actress who plays Violet wears no makeup on stage. She's not made to look disfigured and she's not made to look like a member of the cast. She is plain. We never see the disfigurement, it's not the focus of our attention. We see her. We know she has it—she tells us often enough, it consumes her—but we get to know her as who she is before we even remember the burden she carries on her face. Violet's healing is being free to see herself as we have seen her the entire musical—beautiful, just as she is.

Jack, when we sat in the hospital in Temple and found out you didn't have your right eye, that you had a facial cleft, all I could do was think about sitting on the couch, driving to the grocery store, Violet playing the whole way.

Left my troubles all behind me, back there when I climbed on board.
Jordan River's where you'll find me, it's wide but not too wide to ford.

Violet sings this when she first boards the bus to find her miracle. All the life before is left behind, what awaits her, surely, is everything she thinks she has missed out on. The reference to the Jordan River is striking. It was this river Jesus was baptized in. Baptism is the sign of new creation, Jack, the old being taken away and the new being completely given. When Violet says you'll find her in the Jordan River, it's because she believes that God is going to give her a new face. In the closing song, she repeats the line, but this time it means something else entirely. She has walked out on the other side of that river, she has found her healing, but it was not as she nor society expected. But it was as God intended.

Your mother and I pray for your miraculous healing all the time, but especially every night. I pray the monastic hours over you, the psalms and the old collects, the meditations on the Scared Heart of Jesus and the intentions to the Theotokos to intercede with us for your healing. Every night, without fail. You kick most when we talk about Jesus, which your mother switches between finding endearing and wishing you'd let her sleep with great rapidity. (Again, you like to assert your existence.) We're not stopping those prayers until Jesus tells us otherwise, Jack, because we have already seen him miraculously heal you once.

Jesus grew your jawline, Jesus made it so you could breathe. Your mother and I look at the ultrasounds, but a month apart, and we can see the difference. It's subtle to everyone but us, trained to search for every last bit of evidence of you we can find. But Jesus did do that; Jesus brought cells to perform miracles weeks after they were supposed to. The most life-threatening part of your condition was healed. You have been, already, healed.

Jackson, I want you to know something. I want you to know that we'll keep praying for your healing until Jesus says stop, but your mom and I don't attach healing to how you look. What we want for your life is for you to be whole in the sight of God. We don't know what that means. We don't know if that means by miracle you'll have both eyes and no gap in your face, if that means you'll have both eyes and a gap they heal through surgery, or a glass eye, a surgically healed gap. Or maybe this other thing. Or that other thing. We don't know. We're not scared of that. Regardless of what happens, regardless of what miracles are still yet to come, you were healed by Jesus, you were made to be able to breathe. Can I tell you how that's enough? Can I tell you how much that already is?

We have just over three months until you're born. We've spent a lot of these past months trying to talk as openly as possible about you to help other people get a sense of the language we want to use. Most people, almost all people, want to say the right thing and are so afraid they won't. (It's those people, as it happens, who usually say the right thing because they bothered to wonder that in the first place. It's a sign of moral character. It's the people who quickly tweet you a photo of the 'kid who had the same thing' so 'feel better' that should ... pause before proceeding.) People want to know how to pray, they want to know what they can do. We tell them to both pray for your miraculous healing and pray for you to be whole in God's sight. How we read it, no matter what happens with your face, both of those prayers have been and are being answered.

Jack, well-meaning people are going to say some silly things in your life. They're going to read healing passages in the New Testament and assume that physical healing is superior, is the sign of something exclusive and the property of God. Be kind to these people. Help them read slowly. Help them see how often Jesus only heals when he is asked to. Help them see how what Jesus heals people of is often culturally damaging, not personally. It's really hard to live in the ancient world if you're blind. It doesn't have to be so today. We live in a world that caters to able bodies and defines those able bodies very narrowly. But we don't notice because we assume our own experience is the normal one. So people may say things about how you still need healing if you don't have that eye, or if you need surgery to help finish forming your face. But you can remind them, gentle as you can because sometimes it will be hard to be gentle, that Jesus has already made you whole. You're like Violet, Jackson, no matter what is happening with you physically, God already sees you wholly, as you are. Your mom and I look at 3D ultrasound images, Jack, and we see the same.

See, bud, healing isn't always for the individual. It can be for the community, too. And you're already helping so many people see how much bigger God can be than what we think of as normal. You're already healing expectations and assumptions. Jackson, you are whole in the sight of God and your parents, grandparents, godparents, and a whole wide community of people who pray for your wholeness, whatever that looks like or means.

Jordan River's where we'll find you, too, Jack, in the arms of the Good Shepherd, because no matter how you look, you're on the other side, it's not too wide to ford: you're already whole.