The road home is full of grace—and judgment.
I’m not technically a father but I’m getting close.
Last February, my wife and I were given temporary custody of a toddler named James. The Larimer County Department of Human Services removed James from the care of his parents because of rampant drug use and domestic violence in the home. The details of the case are almost too brutal to be real.
James was 2-years-old when he came to live with us. We were his fifth placement in eight months. We talked to the DHS case manager and James’s court-appointed attorney on a Saturday, and James arrived the following Wednesday. The change was sudden and crazy, especially given that Lindsey and I had been struggling with infertility for five years at that point. All of a sudden we were parents of a boy who had been through so much trauma and pain.
The case manager and attorney told us that the county was preparing to file a motion to terminate the parental rights of James’s biological parents. Lindsey and I entered 2016 seriously considering traditional agency adoption, but out of nowhere, God brought us James.
It took almost a year before the termination hearing actually took place. In late January, the judge ruled to terminate the rights of James’s biological parents. As of this writing, we still don’t know if one or both of the parents will appeal the decision. If they do, and if the appellate court upholds the initial ruling, it might take up to a year before we can officially adopt and become James’s legal parents.
And it took a judge passing judgment for this little boy to find a place he could finally call home.
Julien Baker is a singer-songwriter from Memphis who broke onto the scene in 2015 with her debut album, Sprained Ankle, which is a prodigal-like tale of coming to grips with faith.
I like her music. She’s got a little emo in her (think a somber, female version of Chris Carrabba, except that she sings about sin and grace instead of girls and heartbreak). Mockingbird published an insightful review of Sprained Ankle in July 2016, noting the depth and power of the album.
My favorite song off Sprained Ankle is the last one, “Go Home.” It’s haunting. You’re taken somewhere deep inside your broken sinfulness and toward the heart of God at the same time. The piano leads you to this place where the world falls away and you feel the strange sensation of being exposed and yet accepted. She belts a prayer on the last line: “God, I wanna go home.”
Then the strangest thing happens. As the chords to “In Christ Alone” form the outro, you can hear someone talking. He sounds like a preacher. Yes, someone is preaching. His words fade and crackle. There’s something about Jesus’s death on the cross, about innocent blood being shed. Then more clearly, as the piano fades out: “He sits on the bench as a judge. He is always a judge. He is now a judge.”
The Mockingbird review details some of this sequence and links to an interview Julien did with Stereogum, where she talks about it in more detail:
BAKER: We were recording that track, and the end is the piano arrangement from this hymn called “In Christ Alone.” It holds a lot of memories for me — being young in church, and the lyrics hold a lot of meaning when you analyze them. It’s nostalgic, and as I was recording the end of that we had these two directional mics set up while I played piano into the pre-amp. And then I hear this like, crackly TV noise and the dialogue happening through my headphones. Well, it wasn’t dialogue but the guy was talking. I just finish off the thing, the arrangement and everyone tells me that the pre-amp was picking up church radio, as I was playing.
BAKER: It was like a Twilight Zone thing, and I decided to leave it in there because it was such a cool, organic happening. It’s just so crazy, given the context of the record, that this happened to be a quintessential Southern preacher shouting phrases that start with: “But, God!” [laughs] almost like Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons. It was like some holy roller s**t.
Sprained Ankle beautifully portrays the undeserved nature of God’s grace and God’s willingness to pursue us, hideous mistakes and all. But in the end, Baker dismisses the notion of Jesus as judge as “some holy roller s**t,” even though she appears to mishear the preacher’s words. Listen closely enough and you’ll realize the preacher (who, for my money, sounds a lot like Alistair Begg) is quoting Acts 2:23 from the NIV and says “by God,” not “But, God!” Even the author of the Mockingbird review brushes off “the voice of judgment” that found its way across the airwaves.
I wish I could “amen” this conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to focus only on grace? But Baker is confused. The Bible isn’t so simplistic. And when we misunderstand the essential character of Christ, we miss something beautiful about his person and foundational about his death on the cross.
It’s a terrible thing to have a judge recall your sins and shortcomings in a court of law. The judgment is double-sided: first from the judge, then from those listening to the judge’s condemnations.
This is what James’s parents had to endure at the end of the termination hearing. The judge went through the four aspects of the termination statute and how each parent failed to change, failed to live in a way worthy of getting James back.
When I say that it’s terrible to face a judge, I mean that literally, that there is an element of actual terror involved in it. The vulnerability is overwhelming. Sitting in the courtroom while the judge spoke for more than an hour about why the parents were not fit was a glimpse of a judgement we all face (2 Corinthians 5:10). I won’t forget the feeling.
Neither will James’s biological parents, especially his father. He had actually made some progress, had actually tried to turn things around. The judge was fair, encouraging and affirming him when it was merited. But it was not enough. He was devastated and in tears when we walked out of the courtroom. We somehow ended up in a small circle outside the elevators. He extended his hand to me and I gave him a hug and we were both in tears.
Justice was done but justice isn’t easy. The best thing for James meant the worst thing for someone else. The best thing for James meant judgment on the people who brought him into this world.
Once I was dead in my trespasses and sin. The best thing for me meant the worst thing for Someone else. The best thing for me meant judgment on the One who created me. The Judge bore my sins on the tree. Grace is impossible without judgment. This is why we can rejoice. This is why we can go home.
This is why I am thankful that Jesus is both our Savior and judge (John 5:22, 27-29; John 12:48; Acts 10:42; Revelation 19:11). I can’t justify myself. I need someone to justify me. I don’t know what Julien Baker has gone through in her life, and there is much from her music and her story that moves me to worship. But much of American Christianity’s unwillingness to accept the mystery and paradox of a Savior-Judge undercuts our dearly held exaltation of God’s unmerited grace. The journey to orthodoxy is one of tension and mystery, and if we choose the Christ that best aligns with our preferences, we actually lose the very thing we want him to give us. His grace becomes brittle and ineffective.
. . . the God of love inhabits a moral world because he is also the God of light. . . . We cannot know his love except in its union with what is holy. . . .
It was there [on the cross] that our judgment fell on the One who is also our Judge. — David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind
It grieved me to see James’s father so broken and alone. But I also knew that the judge’s ruling was right and good. James’s best interests were served, and my wife and I were exhaling and rejoicing. C.S. Lewis’s thoughts from Reflections on the Psalms help make sense of this paradox:
We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgement, and regard the announcement that “judgement” is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgement. They know their case is unanswerable — if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.
So what do we do? We fall on our knees thanking the Father-Judge for adopting us into his family. We pray for a sober assessment of our understanding of the essence of God the Son and God the Father. We pray for James’s biological parents. We pray for Julien Baker. We humble ourselves, knowing that even if we are secure in Christ alone, a day of judgment is coming.
It is terrible and good and loving that this is so. May God give us the grace to accept it.