I first wrote these words a few Octobers ago. Since then, I’ve written a memoir embroidered with stories of trees. That book will come out in March–just in time for green spring–but it seems I’ve been paying attention to the trees for a long while.
Autumn is announced by the seedling trees. The baby trees. They are the first to abandon their green in favor of orange or red or yellow.
Driving these country roads, they are like lit matches. Small, flickering flames against the general greens and faded browns of early autumn.
They are children embracing the arrival of something new. They wear their faith like Joseph’s multi-colored coat, and we cannot look away.
Soon, even the staid elders will shake off their summer sleep.
Until they blaze.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I observed the brilliant, baby trees, and I immediately thought of Jesus’s words. I imagined I could write out the connection. That I could find some moral in what I had seen.
But trees are living things. They are not convenient object lessons.
Maybe they are parables. Easy to decode but almost impossible to comprehend. Truth so tall and deep, it avoids our grasp, seeking instead the deep well of our hearts.
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world. (Matthew 13:34)
Yesterday, I saw a strange sight. Walking to shut up the chickens for the night, I saw a line of geese heading southeast. They were black silhouettes against the slate gray backdrop of the sky.
I stood perfectly still watching them, captured by some mystery that wasn’t immediately apparent. Then it came to me in two parts.
First, the geese traveled in a single diagonal line, but there was only emptiness where the other half of the V should have been. Was this a picture of loss and grief? Or only the notice of job vacancies in the sky?
Second, they were quiet. I could hear nothing. No flap of wings, no honking calls.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)
I read my Bible, and I watch the trees. I stop to consider the birds. I am learning to collect hidden things. To store them up for the winter day of my need.
And on that day I will know exactly what it means to be a young tree wearing a blaze of color.
I will understand just how much depends upon chasing the far horizon in complete silence.
Recently, I found myself digging around in the archives of this blog. I was looking for something particular – I no longer remember what – but I stumbled on this post from last December. I wrote it for Solstice, the longest night of the year. It would be one of the last posts I would write before Shawn’s death in January.
I have lately been remembering last year’s Christmas celebration. In my memory, those were the last innocent, happy days. Days when we had not yet known sorrow. Days when we had not yet seen the almost unbearable glory of God.
I was shocked to reread this post and realize I was grieving last December, too. Smaller sorrows, perhaps, but sorrows still. The words I wrote last December do not simply remain true; they are more true.
Strangely, they are also giving me more hope. Through some trick of faulty memory, I had placed the happy days in the past. I had forgotten that the greatest happiness – the most complete joy – is still ahead of us. We have not yet arrived.
But we are nearer. And every door of grief and suffering through which we pass brings us nearer still.
The best days may be yet to come, but in December I remember how much gladness is ours today. This was true for me last December. This is still true today.
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
Here at Maplehurst, 2015 ended with a solid month of rain, fog, and strangely warm weather. 2016 has dawned with sunshine and blue skies. On this, the first day of a new year, it is easy for me to believe what has always been true: God’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning.
“New” is the drumbeat of creation. It is the song of heaven.
This is always our reality, though there are seasons when the beautiful new is hidden by fog.
I am especially grateful to feel the pulse of the new after all the gray days of December. I am grateful to be sharing a few new things with you on this first day of a new year.
There is, as you may have noticed, a new website design. Thank you to Dan King of Fistbump Media for the new look and, even more importantly, a new blog subscription system. If you already subscribe to my blog posts, you should continue to receive them, but in a more timely, more readable format.
If you have never subscribed, you can enter your name and email address in the popup, or simply scroll to the bottom and find a signup form there. I promise never to share your email address, and I don’t blog frequently enough to flood your inbox. I like to call my approach “slow blogging.” Or, sometimes, “quality over quantity.” Though I appreciate your politeness in not mentioning those writers who do manage to offer both.
There is also a new book. In just a few weeks, on February 2, Revell will publish Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. You can read more about the book on my book page (see the links at the top of my website). And, if you haven’t already, I hope you will pre-order a copy for yourself and perhaps a few to give as gifts.
I am glad to give a gift to each of you for supporting this book before it releases. Once you’ve pre-ordered, simply send me a brief note (yes, it’s the honor system!) at this email address: rootsandskybook[at]gmail.com. I will send you a link to a high resolution file of the following image, free for you to print. It is suitable for framing. It is also suitable for thumb-tacking to your bulletin board. Really, whatever.
I hope you like it. I hope it makes you hungry for spring. Spring is always sweeter when we’ve longed for it.
The quotation is straight out of Roots and Sky, and the image was captured last spring by my friend Chelsea of Chelsea Hudson Photography. She also took the photograph for my book cover and is responsible for the new author photos you will see sprinkled throughout this website. If you live anywhere near Washington D.C. or Baltimore I highly recommend Chelsea’s work.
Happy New Year, friends.
I hope, whether your eyes see fog or sunshine, you can feel the newness of heaven pulsing through your veins.
I am ashamed to admit this, but when I began writing this blog three-and-a-half years ago, I did it primarily because I felt I had to. I sensed God tugging me toward becoming a writer. When I hit publish on my first blog post I viewed the act, primarily, as one of simple obedience.
In other words, I did it, but reluctantly and dragging all of my fear and doubt and general insecurity along for the ride.
Now, when I look back, I see God’s mercy and his provision. I see how he gave me the support and encouragement of online friendships through a long season of transition, a season when I had few opportunities for face-to-face community.
I am humbled, and I am grateful.
I remembered all this recently as I sat with my friend Danielle over homemade pizzas at my own dining-room table. I “met” Danielle in the comment section of my blog. She is a talented writer and artist, and we love so many of the same books. She lives only an hour or so away by car, but I would never have known her apart from this strange landscape we call the blogosphere.
It is is with a great deal of gratitude that I share these words from Danielle with you, today.
Prepare Him Room
Joy to the World! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her king; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing…”
The song is so familiar that I barely notice the lyrics. I stream it from iTunes while making dinner. But suddenly these words cause me to pause:
Let every heart prepare him room.
This December I am great with child.
My belly is swollen with a child that thumps and kicks and pulsates life. Three weeks out from the due date we are preparing room. The crib is set up; the clothes are washed and stacked in neat rows in a freshly painted white dresser. I’ve been here before. The preparing and waiting. The waiting and preparing.
During this season of advent and pregnancy my thoughts turn to Mary. What was her waiting and preparing like? She rode the back of a donkey the last days of her gestation, uncomfortable, with no hotel room awaiting her with clean sheets and a hot shower at the end of the journey. God was becoming incarnate in her womb. It took nine months just like any other baby, so mundane yet extraordinary. Mary must have marveled at it so many times.
The startling visit from the angel was just the first of many miracles during her months of pregnancy. First Joseph didn’t believe her, but then had his own mysterious visitation, which changed his mind. She visited her relative Elizabeth—barren her whole marriage—who shared her own amazing story of angel visits and an unexpected yet joyous pregnancy.
Mary experienced the incarnation of Christ in the most unique way possible within the Gospel story. Physically, she birthed Jesus Christ. Spiritually, she praised God with her beautiful Magnificat, saying in Luke 1:46-49, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She treasured and pondered the meaning of all the strange things that were happening to her: the conception and birth, the unexpected visit of shepherds, the “wise men” that showed up on her doorstep.
She believed in the incarnation. She held the incarnation in her own hands, had seen it with her own eyes. She herself became a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Mary teaches me that just like I’m preparing and waiting for the birth of my new baby, so I need to prepare and wait for the incarnation of Christ. Yes, as a historic event Christ has already come, but he’s coming too. He’s always coming, every year, every season, every day.
Everyday I can prepare room for Christ in my heart. I can make manifest the Holy Spirit at work inside my soul. Each moment of each day I have the opportunity to incarnate Christ to others.
That is what Advent reminds me to do. To prepare for Christ’s coming: past, present, and future. To be like Mary and prepare room for him in my heart.
Danielle Ayers Jones is a storyteller. Whether it’s with paper and pen or behind the lens, it’s one of the things she loves to do best. She writes regularly for Ungrind.org, iBelieve.com, StartMarriageRight.com, and FortheFamily.org. She also combines her love of writing and photography on her blog, www.danielleayersjones.com. It’s a space where she seeks to find beauty in the everyday, joy in hardship, and encouragement in unexpected places. Danielle lives in Maryland with her husband and three children and one on-the-way.
It’s Saturday. Let’s have a little fun, shall we?
In addition to another installment of my Saturday series of book recommendations, I am inviting you to enter a fabulous foodie-themed prize giveaway organized by some of my favorite writers and a few new friends.
Let’s take a look:
I’m giving away a copy of one of my favorite cookbooks (a book I’ve recommended before), The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila, and a box of the magic white powder that changed my life. Seriously.
With Pomona’s Pectin you can make jam without any added sugar. Unlike every other pectin you’ll find on your grocery-store shelves that require equal (horrifying) amounts of sugar and fruit, with Pomona’s you can make your jam with fruit only, with a little honey, with fruit juice, with maple syrup, just however you like it. And jam-making (especially freezer-jam making) is one of the easiest, most satisfying things you can do in the kitchen.
Life-changing stuff, I tell you.
Cara Meredith is a writer, speaker and musician from the greater San Francisco bay area. She is passionate about theology and books, her family, meals around the table, and finding Beauty in the most unlikely of places. A seven on the Enneagram, she also can’t help but try to laugh and smile at the ordinary everyday. You can connect with her on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (forthcoming, February 2015) and co-editor of Talking Taboo, an anthology of writing by young Christian women on the intersection of faith and gender. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she blogs about faith, feminism, and, yes, cupcakes on her blog, Holy Hellions. You can also connect with her on Twitter.
Rachel Marie Stone is a writer living near Philadelphia. In the past eight years, she has lived in four countries and two states, and will gladly tell you about the various kinds of pizza she ate (or didn’t eat) in each place. Her book, Eat With Joy, won the Christianity Today Book Award for Christian Living. You can connect with her further on her blog, Twitter, andFacebook.
Carina is an etsy shop owner, writes when she can, works with Noonday to advocate for women around the world, and loves food. Preparing it, consuming it, sitting together around a table filled with friends and family enjoying it. She lives in Seattle, WA with her five lively children and one awesome husband, and drinks way too much coffee. You can connect with her on her blog, etsy shop, and Instagram(among other places).
Cara Strickland is a writer, editor, and food critic in Spokane, Washington. She writes about singleness, food, feminism, and the way faith intersects life (among other things) on her blog Little Did She Know. Come say hi to her on Twitter or Facebook. She likes making new friends.
If you’re reading this post in an email or a reader, you’ll need to click over to enter.
And now – books!
This week I picked up an old favorite and remembered why I love it so much. We may already be a few days into Advent, but this little gem can be enjoyed here and there as you make the time. The readings are diverse, all wonderful, and you never know what you might discover on a given day. It’s Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas
While preparing this post I noticed that the paperback copy I own is no longer available. I am actually glad about that. This book deserves a hard cover, especially since, like me, you’ll be pulling it out year after year.
Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher is the perfect, cozy novel to reread each Advent season. I’m about to begin rereading it myself.
I say cozy, which it is, but I think this cozy is a cut above your typical holiday movie. This novel is thoughtful, sweet, never too sweet, atmospheric. It takes place in Scotland. Need I say more? This is one for reading by a twinkling Christmas tree.
I think books make the best Christmas gifts, and I especially love to give beautiful editions of classic favorites.
Of course, the problem with beautiful books is that I really just want them for myself. These new editions of the classic L.M. Montgomery series are lovely: Emily of New Moon: A Virago Modern Classic (Emily Trilogy).
Happy Advent, my friends.
“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.
The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.
It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.
Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.
Because no dream lives that has not yet died.
Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.
I prefer to call it planting.
First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.
That is the seed.
Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.
We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.
Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.
This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.
This is how we live with dry bones.
Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.
T.S. Eliot warned us:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.
But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.
I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.
On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.
It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.
Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.
We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.
Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.
Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:
Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.
I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.
And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.
Let it be, let it be, let it be.