These are among my favorite words in Scripture. And not just because they point to faith in something greater than our own doing (and overdoing) but because they strike me as almost accusatory. It’s as if Elizabeth, mother-to-be of a baptist boy, is blaming God for her geriatric blessing. “You did this to me,” she says to God as she looks down at her elephant belly, shaking her head and chortling. “This blessing is all your fault.”
It’s for this reason and more that I’ve fallen in love with the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, carefully considered in Enuma Okoro’s devotional book, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent (Upper Room Books, 2012). While most Advent literature focuses on the miraculous action of God in the life of a teenage girl, Okoro turns our attention to two, elderly Jews who like many of us hold within their brittle bones years of unmet desire. It’s no wonder that when an angel of God shows up with news of answered prayer they’re filled with both terror (Zechariah) and joy (Elizabeth). Getting what you want requires no small amount of courage; to lay down your tired narratives, survival strategies, and coping mechanisms; to lay down your past and choose life in the unfolding present. “As we anticipate God made flesh in Christ Jesus,” Okoro writes in the preface, “we dare to relinquish control, to harness our empty life-numbing habits, and to forfeit logic and reason because God often acts outside such boundaries.”
Silence is a masterful blend of scriptural exegesis, personal reflection, and liturgical invitation. Each day of Advent is accompanied by passages of Scripture, a theological reflection from the author, and a brief prayer of presence. At the end of each of the four weeks is a longer, guided meditation for readers to explore questions about their own relationship with longing and a prayerful challenge to live into our “most life-giving selves.” Resources for church pastors and leaders come at the end of the book in a guide for small groups and liturgies for lighting Advent wreaths. Okoro is a skilled teacher who packs much depth in this slim book.
Perhaps it’s because I know Okoro as a close friend and colleague (Talking Taboo) that her words on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary are particularly precious. There is a dearth of good, sensible writing on making and finding friends as an adult woman. (Cara Strickland is one of my favorite writers on friendship and the single life; Jonalyn Fincher is a lion in advocating for cross-gender friendships.) My first reading of Silence came during a difficult time with a friend who told me she couldn’t support my upcoming book for reasons that it didn’t edify the body of Christ to make private matters public. Okoro’s conviction that friends are people who “remind us of who we are, who challenge us to live into who we are called to be, and who accept us at every stage of the journey“ gave me permission to step back from that friendship, spend some time in solitude, and wonder if it was edifying to the Christ-image in me.
“This is the Lord’s doing.” I love these words. So much so that they begin the acknowledgements section of said new book. Anticipating its birth into the world has been an agonizing season of terror and joy (and therapy). Through the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, I am reminded that to accept the fullness of God’s promises requires time: of silence, of seclusion, of celebration with worthy friends. It requires a belly laugh from time to time too.
Okoro writes, “No one is left to discern God’s life-altering activity alone, to hold God’s promises alone, or to bear the burden of divine blessings without faithful companions, whether human or angelic.”
I count her as both.