Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

The Smell of a Dead Monk

Father Zossima is the kind old monk in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov.  He’s similar to Bishop Myriel in Les Mis, an otherworldly sage who has learned to live out the gospel in a radical way.


Father Zossima is also the beloved spiritual mentor of Alyosha, the hero of the novel and the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers.  Aloysha is only twenty, and he’s a novice in the local monastery, so he trusts Father Zossima wholeheartedly, agreeing to follow whatever instruction the old man gives. Because Aloysha’s biological father has been distant for most of his  life, it’s easy to see why this young man gravitates toward kindly, paternal affection.

Father Zossima is also a local celebrity, known for spiritual access to healing and prophecy. It’s widely suspected that the old man will be sainted when he dies, so when his earthly life finally draws to a close, the townspeople grow to a frenzy. Expecting miracles, they bring family members who need healing to his coffin.

Yet at this critical moment in the novel, something terrible and unexpected happens—something which shakes Alyosha’s faith. Father Zossima’s body begins to decay.

At the time, tradition taught that a true saint’s body wouldn’t decompose—that it would even release a perfumed sweetness into the air. Yet within hours—even sooner than most—the scent of real, human death fills the room.

Several monks who had been jealous of Zossima’s fame and admiration seized this opportunity to mock and deride him. Soon, their whispers grew to open verbal hostility, and finally a hateful monk enters the mourning room to lambast the dead father as a false teacher.

Alyosha’s naïve young heart breaks.

He had not only loved the old man, he had lived inside a bubble of spiritual idealism, believing a string of religious fairy tales. When reality didn’t match his expectations, Alyosha was spiritually undone, overcome with doubt, devastated that all had not gone as he expected.

I read this section of Karamazov after midnight last night. I read because I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying. Though God tells us not to fear, I was afraid.

Beside me, my husband groaned in his sleep. He hurt his back pretty badly yesterday, and of all the times that injury could have happened to our family, this is one of the worst. Yesterday was our first day of switching to a new insurance with a new deductible, and after several nervous hours of Googling bulging and ruptured discs, I was trying to decide whether he needed an MRI.

For some of you, hits like this never seem to stop. There’s always one more kink in the happily ever after.

Even if you’ve never believed in the prosperity gospel, the theological promises of movies like Facing the Giants get into our bones. In the back of our hearts, we still expect faithful resignation to be blessed in visible ways. The follower of Jesus will coach the team to winning the championship, snag the new pickup truck, get the baby, and look at last around at his mortal life and find that all is well.

Some stories of faith certainly look like this, but in others, the blessings of God may smell more like a dead monk. That’s because God knows what each of his followers needs (truly needs), and his love allows different challenges for different Christians. He knows that coming face-to-face with deep disappointment can be critical to the maturity of faith.

As Alyosha comes to terms with the smell of death in his mentor, he faces,  “a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect.” Perhaps you’ve lived out a similar shock—perhaps you know what questions rise when we realize that God’s behavior does not fit into the tiny boxes we have made to hold Him. These moments of reorientation may be painful and bitter, and we may weep for days when we face them. But like Alyosha, they can also grow us up.

By his deepest disappointment, by this brutal blow to the crux of his security and idealism, Alyosha faith was strengthened. Because of the pain of a lost ideal, his belief was given a "definite aim.”

As I prayed this morning, I felt the onslaught of challenges facing our family. I prayed for direction. I prayed for sustenance and for miracles. I also prayed for the ability to worship God in rooms that reek of death.

On June 8, a team of scientists from Oxford published research addressing the Fermi paradox, the gap between our expectation that life exists somewhere in the universe and our inability to find it. This study concludes that we cannot find extraterrestrial life because it doesn’t exist.

Since I haven’t seen the Bible specifically negate the possibility of alien life, this has never been a major theological battlefield for me. I’ve always trusted that an infinite God could have simultaneous narratives running in different solar systems (or even in different dimensions). I’ve supposed that if he did have something like that going on, all narratives would one day fold together into a lovely story he knows we can’t comprehend with tiny mortal minds.

I haven’t obsessed about it, of course; I haven’t actively believed that life did exist elsewhere. I’ve just held the possibility loosely. I’ve let what God left unsaid remain mysterious.

So, it was strange to read the Oxford study and consider the thought that humans might actually be alone in the universe. I stopped to really think about that--we could be the only beings anywhere with souls. In all of this everything that goes on seemingly forever, our capacity for worship could be unique.

Maybe this won't hit you like it hits me--astronomy and I have kind of a "thing" going, and we have for a while. It’s more of a romance than an academic passion. I’m one of those weirdos who cries real tears when NASA releases new pics of Jupiter and Pluto. Star nebulae give me goose bumps. As a baby, my first sentence was, “The moon is in the sky, Mr. Hall.”


I have felt reverent awe for God’s artistry in the heavens every since I can remember, a sense of being pressed down to my knees by the all-I-am-not, a compression like gravity. The created order is so beautiful, so extravagant... I’m tempted to use the word “magical.”

Without that Oxford study, assuming that we could possibly be alone in all of this feels audacious. History has slapped the hand of the small-minded church too many times. My faith is post Copernicus, post Galileo—I don’t have geocentric impulses.

And yet, here is science telling me that we could be alone.

I wasn't expecting to be taken so seriously by my Creator.

What if He really did make all of this--the dimension of time--the capacity for sentience--the ability to praise--all poured into a handful of creatures placed on one tiny, tumbling rock? What if our hymns are the only hymns besides those songs the angels sing?

The circumstances which seem so grave to me--the challenges that make my belly quiver and my knees shake--readjust in light of this possibility.

My pain and fear are portals in all of space and time, and even when I face the smell of the decomposition of my theological fairy tales, I still stand before the God who was, and who is, and who always will be.

Here in the silence of the created order, I can speak trust to Him. I can yield to Him. Among all the cold rocks and the fiery gasses of all of creation, I have been given the capacity to hold my arms wide before all his mysteries and confess:

I did not see you lay the foundation of the earth.
I did not determine its measurements.
I do not know how its bases were sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

I did not see you shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
I was not there when you made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
saying “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”

I have never commanded the morning since my days began,
or caused the dawn to know its place.
I have never changed its surfaces
l like clay under the seal,
or dressed the earth like a garment.

I have never entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep.
I have never seen the gates of death or the gates of deep darkness.
I cannot comprehend the expanse of the earth.

Only by your hand, do I know the way to the dwelling of light,
because you are the Light of the World,
and amid all of the lesser lights of all You have made,
you, Great Light, have come to give light to me.

While a soulless Jupiter storms, while distant stars implode, while the red dust of Mars holds low in a lifeless hush, while no-man of the moon paints every grass tip silver, I can recline upon Jesus.

No matter what happens in my life, He is worthy. Though the good, dead monk reeks, Christ remains a center which cannot be shaken. And He has given me a voice that is able to praise Him. Thanks be to God.

Rain on a Barren Land (Genesis 25-28, Psalm 8)

"Drought and Downpour" by Mayard Dixon, 1944

"Drought and Downpour" by Mayard Dixon, 1944


This week was kind of crazy for our family. We took our adopted son to the gastroenterologist and learned a little bit more about his past as well as some medical needs he may be facing in the future. M was born with gastroschisis, a condition in which the intestines were present outside of the body. I won’t expand more on that here, but I will say that it’s been sort of an emotional week with a few sweet discoveries and also some hard possibilities.

If you’re keeping up with our reading, yesterday we read Genesis 25-28 and Psalm 8. Briefly, I want to make sure you think about the theme of barrenness that began with Sarah. We find out that Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, is barren in Genesis 25, and as God heals her from this, she conceives twins who struggle hard in the womb—Jacob and Esau. Later, we will read about the physical barrenness of Jacob’s loved wife Rachel and the barrenness of affection his wife Leah faces.

Isaac also faces a famine which drives him back to Abimelech (remember the second king Abraham who took Sarah because Abraham claimed she was his sister?) Isaac makes the same mistake, and it’s a king of the Philistines—not the chosen people of God—who makes the moral call here.

Then we see the impulsiveness of Esau, the duplicity of Rebekah and Jacob, the conflict that rises among broken people trying to figure out the intersection between the blessings of God and the activity of men. It’s kind of a mess—barren people in barren lands making mistakes.

By the time I got to the Psalm 8 section of the reading, I was moved by these lines, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet...”

This psalm rings a lot truer to my own experience than some of the psalms that claim a human righteousness that deserves rescue. I can’t identify with feeling like i deserve God’s help. I know how messed up I am and how barren my moral ability actually is.

But when I read David’s stunned gratitude that God would bother with us at all, I feel some of his same questions fall naturally upon my soul. Who are we that you would trust us like you do?

His love is extravagant favor. Rain on a barren land. A child in a barren womb.


The LaLeche League division of the AARP (Genesis 21)

“And Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’ And she said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ And the child grew and was weaned.”

Genesis 21:6-8


When I was in my thirties, I didn’t understand all the wrinkle cream ads. I thought older women were beautiful--that the lines on their faces made them interesting. But as I’ve grown into my mid forties, I’ve realized that there’s more to aging than charming little crow’s feet around my eyes. The skin around my mouth is changing, growing heavy, and often my expression looks tired or angry when I’m not.

It can be a little distressing to look in a mirror and see a reflection that doesn’t show my true heart. The stress of the past few years is visible in my countenance.

Yesterday I bought my first pair of reading glasses. They were just 1.0 in strength, the lowest possible lenses. But still, there was something about that purchase which marked a definite transition.

A couple of older folks watched me trying them on in the grocery, trying to read the back of a Pepto bottle (the closest label I could find), and they chuckled. Clearly, I was new at this. One kind older man reached out and told me he remembered his first pair of reading glasses, and he told me a couple of those medical stories you often hear grey-heads telling a little too loudly in public.

It was an initiation. I was in the club now. He was showing me how to laugh at my body as it ages, modeling the humor that maximizes the latter years.

The jokes older people tell aren’t always what young people would consider “nice.” Jokes about the bathroom. Jokes about the bedroom. Jokes about colonoscopies. Jokes about parts of your body withering away and yielding to gravity. Yet the sort of bodily humor that hits in the second half of life isn’t sexual so much as confessional—there's usually an “all is vanity” punch line reminiscent of Ecclesiastes.

That’s the sort of punch line feel when I read Sarah’s statement, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?”

I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a medical diagram of the breasts of a 99-year-old woman, but if you have, you’ll understand why nursing a child wouldn’t be the first possibility that comes to mind. Yet these dry and fallen breasts would fill up with milk, filling the belly of an impossible promised child until he is weaned.

It's the sort of story that would make a couple of old folks chuckle in the reading glasses aisle of the grocery. “Did you hear about old Sarah?”

Yes, we’ll give that image a laugh—and for just a moment or two, we will let the levity of the presence of a comedic God fill us with hope that such a winsome Lord might also revive our own dry and cranky bones for the work of another day.

"We can do anythiiiiiiiiing." But should we? Genesis 11:6-7

Genesis 11:6-7

“And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.’” 




Every time I run into these verses, I flinch a little. At first glance, they feel almost mean. What’s wrong with people understanding one another? What’s wrong with “nothing being impossible” for humans? (Imagine a 1980’s theme song, here. “We can do anythiiiiiiing.”)

Even more baffling? God gave humans a command to create and cultivate. So what’s the deal? Why would he tell humans to do something, then stop them mid stream?

This story jolts me like Genesis 3:22-24. Remember this section we read a few weeks ago?

"Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”' therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life."

What’s wrong with knowing good and evil? What’s wrong with living forever? Wouldn't that be a good thing?

I think these sorts of passages are sort of enthymematic—they leave out an implied major premise that must be understood to get the full meaning. And in both cases, the omitted premise is pretty much the same: “Power in the hands of people who are out of sync with God will lead to disaster.”

Eternal life for Adam and Eve (and their offspring) in a post-sin world would not be pleasant. Imagine endless existence in a fleshly state that had no possibility of indwelt communion with the Creator. Adam and Eve didn’t just need physical immortality, they needed redemption.

In the case of Babel, a similar trajectory is noted. The progress of secular humanism would provide empty success. Sure, stuff would get accomplished. Research and development would happen. But while a proud, godless humanity was trying to “make a name for itself," the results would be fragmented and disjointed because civilization wouldn’t operate in harmony with the Creator of the universe. If left to their own skill sets, humans would learn to rely on themselves more and more, growing increasingly dependent upon their own minds and strength and less open to the sort of Divine trust and reliance that the imago Dei was created to experience.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Chesterton quotes here—a quote that I have mentioned dozens of times already and plan to mention dozens of times more. It’s that good.

"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone."

What can we learn here about rooting our gifts in the center of Jesus? The temptation to "make a name for ourselves" is still kicking today. How do we do the work of creation and cultivation without running into dependence upon our own strength? How do move outward in faith from a true, operational core?


Genesis 12-15, Psalm 4

After six months overseas, our oldest son came home this week for a few days before returning to college. We won’t see him again for a good long while yet, so I’m soaking up the hours while he is here.  I’ll write more after he leaves tomorrow, but for now, here’s the reading and a video for this part of the week.

Genesis 12-15, Psalm 4
Video: Genesis 12-50

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"The Torah" and Genesis 8-11

Today we are reading Genesis 8-11 in the Torah.  (Be sure to check out The Bible Project's free app if you want to make accessibility even easier.)

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We are also watching this video from The Bible Project. which is fabulous. I think you'll be glad that you spent five minutes on this when it's over.

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A second piece of writing that fits pretty well into this theme can be found here.  Though I'm not crazy about some of the political decisions the AFA has made over the past two years, I think Bryan Fischer's conclusions on the sin of Ham are worth checking out.