During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
I write fondly of this beautiful, crumbling old house, but the actual crumbling makes me want to run away crying.
I crop and edit my instagram photos to emphasize beauty, but the truth is often a whole lot less beautiful. The truth is original wooden windows layered with paint. There are rotting sills and decrepit, ill-fitting storm windows. The truth is decay around the roofline soffits. The truth is window shutters so deteriorated I worry they’ll turn to dust if we remove them for repair.
Last week I stood on the lawn with a local carpenter. We craned our necks toward rotted wood three floors up. He heaved a deep sigh and said, “Honestly? I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
He told me some houses are like Hondas. You go to the shop, you buy a new part. But my house was a fancy sports car. Every replacement part costs more and is harder to find.
Is our home the shelter version of a foolish, midlife crisis? Because that isn’t the life I would choose.
The life I would choose is safe and sensible. It’s modestly priced. It’s manageable. Never overwhelming. In this dream life my sister and her kids live nearby. Showing up in the gap (the great and terrible gap) where Shawn once stood, would be easy and natural.
Life would be easy and natural.
In Roots and Sky, I write that “I am living an adventure in stability. Mine is a pilgrimage in one place” (184).
When Jonathan and I arrived at Maplehurst with our three kids (and one on the way), we didn’t only feel called to come. We felt called to stay.
Jonathan is an engineer, I am a writer, our kids tug us in the direction of a dozen different hobbies and interests, but together our life as a family is about place-making. Together, we are cultivating a place; we are tending it, transforming it, and sharing it with others.
I always assumed our faithfulness to this vision would be tested. Perhaps I would resent the chickens and the gardens and wish for a summer-long road trip instead. Perhaps I would grow tired of canning tomatoes, cooking for others, and changing bedsheets for guests twice in one week.
Now, almost four years in and with this house on the cover of a book, it isn’t weariness but fear and desire that have caused me to question all of it.
This house needs more than we have to give.
What if we can’t keep up?
My extended family needs more than we have given in the past.
Shouldn’t we put their needs first?
While I was in Hawaii, someone asked if I would be willing to move to live nearer to Kelli and the kids. It broke my heart to say it, but I said it.
I may be willing, but it still doesn’t feel like my choice. Or, if it is my choice, I will not choose to ignore the voice that has, for so long and so consistently, whispered only one word: stay.
We came to Maplehurst with vision. We knew our future was planted in this place. Yet the strange thing about vision is that sometimes you carry it around like a pair of eyeglasses in your pocket. The weight bouncing against your leg is the only reminder of everything you cannot yet see.
After the carpenter came two craftsmen. One loves old windows. One loves old plaster. They salvage the parts, or they make them with their own two hands.
I stood with one, our necks craned three floors up, and he said, “This isn’t a house. It’s a home.”
And I knew then he saw what I had seen, what I wanted to see again. Not rotting wood or peeling paint, but a home open enough for neighborhood Easter egg hunts and reunions of family and friends. A home spacious enough for nieces and nephews to spend every summer here.
A home powerful enough to draw us all away from the sensible and the manageable and on toward something much more terrifying, much more beautiful, and altogether more abundant.
I didn’t plan to talk to my children about terrorism or the Syrian refugees, but my children are older now and I have less control. Sometimes, I thank God I have less control.
When my daughter said her school had held a moment of silence to remember or pray for Paris, my older son asked why.
I spoke a few words about the terrorists and those who died at their hands. I mentioned the millions of children who have lost their homes and are searching for new ones.
My younger son interrupted us, impatient and eager to clear away this heavy conversation.
Sweeping his arm toward the rest of our house, he asked, “Why can’t they just stay here?”
We only stared at him.
For a moment, it was completely silent in my kitchen.
I wrote Roots and Sky because I wanted to explore questions I had been asking for years. I wrote it because I knew I wasn’t the only one asking them.
Why do I feel such longing for a home?
Is that desire a distraction from my commitment to follow the One who had no place to lay his head?
Is it even possible to feel at home this side of heaven?
As I wrote, I discovered the answer to this last question is yes.
With all the recent talk of immigrants and refugees, I have had a few terrible words lodged in my mind.
Go home! Go back to where you came from!
That has been the taunt for generations, hasn’t it? I imagine a few of my own ancestors may have heard it. Perhaps a few of yours, too.
But today, in my imagination, I hear a refugee voice crying, If only, if only, if only I could.
As I wrote my book, I encountered my own refugee roots.
In the beginning, our spiritual father and mother called paradise home. That home slipped from their grasp and there was no going back. Whether we call that ancient story myth or history or wisdom poetry, we all know the shadow of that loss.
Soon we will celebrate the good news that while we still wandered, heaven came to us. God’s message of peace and goodwill to all men was once a refugee baby in Egypt. The message wasn’t some spiritual abstraction. It was flesh and blood. Mary sheltered good news in her arms.
The story of Roots and Sky is the story of Jesus’s promise to come to us and make his home with us (John 14:23). In my life, that promise has been fulfilled in the old bricks and crumbling plaster of a farmhouse called Maplehurst. If his banner over us is love, my own particular banner is three stories high and a bit ragged around the edges.
No wonder my heart breaks for the homeless.
I have two spare beds in my house. There is a big bed in our guestroom and a little bed tucked against the wall in my office. Those extra beds are often full but not always. We are grateful for the young woman who lives in another spare bedroom. When we began looking for an old house, it was always because we wanted room for others to live with us. Her presence here is another of God’s promises kept.
Maybe if I lived on the front lines of this humanitarian crisis, I could invite homeless families to share my home. Like this man did. For now, I am seeking out other ways to help.
That incredible man and his family remind me that doing good is not complicated nor is it abstract. Rather, it is very hard and very simple.
The good news is also very simple. It might be food. It might be medicine. It might even be a large chest of drawers, hauled up too many flights of steps. All of it given, with no strings attached, in the name of Jesus.
It is in Jesus that I have found my way home to God. That is why I will leave the door of this old house open. That is why I will say what’s mine is yours.
It isn’t safe. It isn’t smart. But it is the right thing to do.
Because I am not the only one who wants to come home.
Our first serious snowfall arrived the day before Thanksgiving.
The day began with rain. I left the house early to meet a friend for coffee and prayer, and the rain was already running in rivers. They said the rain would turn to snow mid-morning, yet that is a miracle I am always reluctant to believe without seeing. They were right. At ten in the morning, as I sat writing in one of the third-floor attic bedrooms, the rain turned quietly to snow.
Within minutes the golden-brown leaves still piled on our lawn were dusted with snow. Within an hour, the whole world had changed. Autumn had disappeared, buried beneath a new, wintry world.
My children had an early release from school for the holiday. I was standing at the parlor window, watching for them to come walking the long length of our driveway, when I heard it. A rumble. Like a heavy truck. But the rumble grew and cracked and broke into pieces, and I recognized it for what it was.
Thunder. A long, rolling river of thunder.
Every year since I began writing this website, I have blogged daily during Advent. During the rest of the year, I struggle to post regularly once each week. But those Advent seasons of daily writing have been my favorite seasons. The intensity of those days, the witnessing and the telling, have changed me. They have also changed my life.
I began this discipline of daily Advent blogging because I was desperate. Desperate for something new and good in my life. Desperate for more. I ached and yearned and waited, and I wrote about it. I tried to anchor my own story in The Story. That January I found out I was pregnant. I’d had no idea what I was aching for, but Elsa Spring is, as her name suggests, new and good and as beautiful as a long-anticipated spring.
The second year I was weighed down by a gray post-partum fog. I was sure I had nothing to say. But God showed himself and gave me words. And in January the fog was finally rolled back. I was myself again. I knew happiness again.
The third year, I was sure I couldn’t do it. I had not had time to pre-plan a single post. I kept my eyes wide open, and I scratched out a few words each night. And God showed up. I woke every day feeling empty, and I went to bed every night having been given the story for that day.
In January, my long, vague dream of writing a book crystalized unexpectedly. Just after Epiphany, a book idea dropped, fully formed, into my head. And, in another year, that book will show up in bookstores.
You would be right if you guessed that I approach Advent with not a small amount of fear and trembling.
Advent is a journey. And it changes us. It is a season of quiet beauty and gentle expectation, but it can roll over our lives like thunder. Sit. Watch. Wait. There is no telling what you might see.
Two thousand years ago, the whole world changed. And it goes on changing. There is always, always something new.
This year, I am deep in words for my book. For the first time, I have had to admit that I cannot blog every day of Advent. But I have not wanted to give it up. Instead, I have asked a few of my writer friends to join me here. I’ll be sharing their Advent reflections with you this season. I’ll also be showing up with Saturday book recommendations and a special food-themed Christmas giveaway.
And I pray, however you observe Advent, that it will be as beautiful as the first snowfall of the season. I pray that it will rock the earth beneath your feet like thunder.
“… 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.
Step One. Read books. Lots of them.
People will tell you to put down your books and join the real world, for heaven’s sake. They will remind you that you live in a university dorm or an apartment reached by only a sliver of light or a temporary rental and do not even think of wasting time or money on land you do not own, but you would do well to smile and say nothing. Go on. Read. Read your books and dream your dreams. You are storing up treasures in heaven.
Step Two. Pay attention to desire.
When winter wears on and you cannot stand it one more day, lean in to that ache. Accept that the two things you want most in life, a garden and a baby, may never be yours. But take heart. The moment you break under the weight of longing is the moment you wash out an old yogurt container and fill it with dirt and a few grass seeds. When the grass seeds sprout you will run your hand over cool greenness while icy snow tap-taps against the window. The smell of a few blades of grass snipped with kitchen scissors is the smell of hope.
Step Three. Try and fail.
When a friend invites you to share a plot in the neighborhood community garden, say yes. Say yes, even though you don’t actually know anything about growing vegetables. Commit to reading more books with titles like Practical Kitchen Gardens and fewer books with watercolor illustrations and titles like Roses I Have Loved. Say yes even though you are hugely pregnant and you cannot exactly bend over. When your firstborn, your longed-for baby girl, arrives that September, your friend will bring you pasta made with tomatoes and basil you did little to tend. For the rest of your days that combination of flavors will recall your daughter’s sleepy infant smile.
Step Four. Live without.
Trade your community garden plot in a northern city for a Florida backyard dominated by concrete pavers and chlorinated water. Watch your potted flowers shrivel and die beneath the showery splashes of three children. Look at those children and remember that God does sometimes give us the desires of our hearts. Pray for the garden of your dreams. Pray for those impractical, impossible roses.
Step Five. Dig.
When you come home to your own bit of earth at last, dig. Scatter your seeds widely and see what takes root. Do not despair when the groundhog churns holes, rabbits nibble tulips, and two chickens vanish in the night. Despite all that you do not possess (knowledge, time, energy, even, some days, vision), spring will come and seeds will grow. Desire is sometimes deep buried. Rock the baby girl, the fourth-born child you never knew you always wanted, while the snow tap-taps against the window.
Step Six. Rest.
After long days of ripping invasive vines and clearing weed trees, sit still in the shady spot you’ve made. Sit still long enough to notice the smell of memory. It is the almost-forgotten smell of your father’s roses, the roses your mother sent you out to cut just before guests arrived for dinner. Follow that smell around the curve of the just-cleared fence until you find it. A wild rambler, like but not like all the wild roses growing on the edges of this place. This one is not white but blush pink. This one does not sit like a stubborn tangle of thorns, but drapes gracefully across the ruined stones of the old barn. This one does not give out a whisper of spiciness but, rather, smells like rose-with-a-capital-R. It smells like the real deal.
Ask yourself if a garden is a thing made by human hands or a free gift of God.
Wonder, for the first time, if God’s glory can be cultivated. Perhaps it is a gift to be tended a thousand different ways in every place and every season.
For all your days.