When Life Seems Improbable

Nov 8 / Terri Conlin
On this day he was not as I expected him to be.

I was looking for the bird in shallow bay waters. I had seen him before hunkered down on a rock like an old gray man in a tattered stadium coat.

When out of the corner of my eye, leaves rustling in the treetop, I caught a glimpse of the blue heron I sought. I waited on the footbridge above the Willamette River - surprised, quiet, and stock-still. And waited. Runners came and went on the trail behind me.

Just as I was about to go, the heron looked as though he fell from the tree and might drop into the water like a stone. He wobbled unevenly just above the water, caught the air with a jerk and took to elegant flight. I stood in stunned surprise under his blue-tipped wings wide and graceful.

For weeks, I marveled at the contraption of stilt legs, a long S-curve neck, and unfolding wingspan that is a heron. I wondered how is it exactly that they manage to fly? From what I could see, the whole enterprise looked improbable.

I remembered the blue heron again when I read the Advent story of Zechariah, an old priest in the temple whose priestly service and heartbroken prayers were interrupted by the angel Gabriel. (Luke 1)

Walter Wangerin, Jr. describes the scene,

Suddenly the air at the right side of the altar tore apart as if it were a curtain, and fire broke into the room, a pure white flame with its foot on the floor and its crown at the high beams of the ceiling. The heat should have consumed Zechariah’s clothing and seared his flesh! . . .

Zechariah covered his face with his thick hands, “Sir”, he said in anguish, “don’t ridicule me. I am an old man. My wife is an old woman. It cannot happen as you say.”

The flame said, “Look at me.”
Zechariah hunched farther down.
The light cried, “I am Gabriel. Look at me!”
The old man uncovered his eyes. “Gabriel?”[1]

Shock. Stunned surprise. Disbelief. Answered.

In the gospel of Luke, Gabriel answers Zechariah,

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you good news, And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

A priest meant to offer the prayers of the people, now silent. A priest meant to hear God’s response, now deaf. It would be easy to think this silence was a punishment. Perhaps this is what we were taught or caught along the way.

But could this be God’s tender mercy?

What if the silence was given in love as a gift to Zechariah’s soul, his faith, work as a priest, his village or marriage?

It is true that Zechariah’s disbelief began almost a year of outward silence. But what new life might be born inside? How improbable given his age!

He was visited by Glory. Good News had spoken.

The possibilities that come in communion with the Holy Spirit often require silence so we can hear the One who speaks love to our deepest places. Now, beyond a single blazing moment in the temple, Zechariah is invited into everyday possibilities of trusting God’s voice from within.

Dallas Willard writes, “The Spirit who inhabits us is not mute, restricting himself to an occasional nudge, a hot flash, a brilliant image, or a case of goosebumps.”[2]

I have been known to resist silent seasons in my life (encountering autism in one of my children comes to mind). Only to find, after much stubbornness, what a tender gift of mercy from God’s heart to mine. Lately, I have realized it was also a gift from my son’s heart to mine. How improbable given how difficult it was to communicate with him in ways familiar to me.

I am learning to welcome these seasons of silence as God’s sheer gift offered in love.

When I finally surrender to what I describe as stunned silence, I notice all kinds of hidden things. I notice both my own heartbeat and God’s, my longing and his.

As noise of the outside world fades away, I hear whether we are in or out of sync. I feel the faint sting of my tears before they reach my tear ducts and realize who knew they were already rising behind me eyes.

Martin Laird writes,

“God is our homeland . . . Communion with God in the silence of the heart is a God-given capacity, like the rhododendron’s capacity to flower, the fledgling’s for flight, and the child’s for self-forgetful abandon and joy.” [3]

Advent is on the horizon, just weeks away. Yet always here. A holy possible Immanuel arriving in surprise, improbably, disruptively, beautifully. When life seems improbable, may we behold his breathtaking beauty.

Continue the journey this Advent season by joining Terri for an Advent journey called Behold|! 40 days of wonder in Advent, Christmastide & Epiphany. Designed with our spiritual formation in mind - 44 4’x4’ cards to encourage paying attention to life and God’s abiding presence within, being surprised by God’s love and goodness in Christ, and establishing healthy rhythms of rest and generosity. . . . it is part quiet discovery in scripture and part community with 3 online gatherings to share the journey. Join her here.

1 Walter Wangerin Jr. The Book of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. 421.
2 Willard, Dallas. Hearing God. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999. 22.
3 Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 and 5.

Terri Conlin

Terri Conlin is a certified Spiritual Director, writer, and occasional preacher. She has a BA in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in Spiritual Formation from Portland Seminary. She thrives when creativity and resilience flourish together in God’s sheltering places. Terri and her husband live among the rainy firs of Oregon. They have four grown children and seven feisty grandchildren she calls the Wonders. Most days you can find her outside walking or writing about spiritual formation while sipping dark roast coffee in a thrifted mug. https://www.terriconlin.com/