I look forward to Mother’s Day. My life brims with beautiful mothers: my own, my mother-in-law, my two sisters, and my sister-in-law. Though my four children never have managed to plan a breakfast in bed, they are not stingy with homemade cards and hugs. When I stirred my youngest awake this morning, she said, before even opening her eyes, “Is today Mother’s Day?” That’s how eager she is to watch me open the brown paper-wrapped craft she brought home yesterday from preschool.
But I remember other Mother’s Days. I remember Sundays when the annual recognition of all the moms in the church congregation brought me nothing but pain. I wanted what they had. Desperately.
Having a mother and being a mother are blessings, which means they open us right up to both great joy and great pain. It seems a fitting thing to remember this week.
I am grateful to my friend and fellow writer Sharon McKeeman for sharing her story of grief and Joy with us.
When I was young, I tucked my dolls into bed safely each night. When I was young, I drew haphazard flowers on construction paper for my mom on Mother’s Day. Life was simple and sweet, and I trusted that it would always remain so.
I didn’t know then that I would hold a son stillborn on his due-date. I didn’t know I would caress his perfect but lifeless body before the nurses took him from me. In those moments, life shattered desolate. I returned home from the hospital to my two young sons, and somehow, we celebrated Thanksgiving a few weeks later. My heart had stopped right in its tracks, but the North Carolina sun kept shining, and the rhythm of ordinary and holidays continued. I offered thanks around our turkey-laden dinner table, and I wrapped presents for my children at Christmas. Grief is a long road, but as the chill of the winter months turned to warm spring, I felt my soul begin to revive. Then one day I woke up, and it was Mother’s Day. How could I survive this?
I was afraid I would come untethered, scared that I might just float away. Shame, despair, and heartache were so very close that day, but miraculously Christ was closer. The One who made me and holds my son, wrapped His arms tight around me and carried me through that day. This didn’t numb the pain, but as my two living children kissed my tear streaked cheeks, I lived the truth that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4 NIV) A mother just barely healing from sprinkling her son’s ashes in the sea, I was comforted. I can’t explain it other than I called out to Christ because I didn’t know how else to survive, and He surrounded me. He held me and didn’t let go.
I wish I could say that since then I have tucked my children into bed safe each night. Thankfully a healthy pregnancy followed the loss of my son on his due-date, but I lost another child when his heart stopped beating at sixteen weeks and another when her heart never began to beat. Even though I held three living children, Mother’s Day become a joke, a time to endure. Even as I collected hand drawn cards and red roses, my soul sank. While around me spring was bursting with life, my heart began to feel as dead as my womb. Despair and distrust of my heavenly Father grew until a friend reminded me that a weeping Jesus is always near.
Jesus entered this mess with us. He suffered and wept; He weeps with us still.
I came to rest in that truth.
I held three children, and I mourned three children. My arms were full, and my arms were empty. Through it all my Maker held me. When I was too weak, too consumed by grief, to hold on, God surrounded and carried me.
This spring an unexpected bloom has unfurled. After I held death within my body three times, a pregnancy blossomed into a healthy daughter who is filling my arms and heart. After all these years of mourning, we have named her Joy. Our family holds her close and breathes thanksgiving, but I know this happiness is just a step in our journey. There will be more storms, more barren months. The greatest gift comes in knowing that joy was not found alone in this precious little one, but in discovering that Christ weeps with me, and my Maker holds me so carefully that no tragedy can tear me from His embrace.
For every woman with empty arms and an aching heart in this season, I pray that she will feel a weeping Jesus near and comforting her. I pray that a miraculous joy will well up within, defy earthly pain, and speak heaven straight to her soul.
There is an everlasting spring yet to come, and even as these bodies of dust often fail us, its whispers take root in our hearts.
Sharon is a homeschooling mama to three sons and a daughter. She is a Midwestern girl at heart who now lives with her family on the sunny beaches of Southern California, where they enjoy reading together and playing in the surf. She is an author, educator, speaker, and photographer who shares more of her story as @sharonmckeeman on Instagram and at www.sharonmckeeman.com where you will find her blog, Writing in the Dust, as well as her newsletter, Mourning into Joy, which is filled with encouragement and resources for grieving mamas.
For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.
And so they sing.
Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.
Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?
Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.
When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.
Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.
The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.
I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.
I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.
I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.
Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.
I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.
It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.
In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.
I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.
Today, I do not even want the rain.
But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.
I want to know what the trees have always known.
I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.
Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
It is precious as a rainbow above green velvet cliffs.
It is precious as the full moon on that warm night when we gathered to cry for him and laughed remembering him.
It is as precious as a Hawaiian lei. We cut the thread, we scattered the flowers, and the thunder waves of the North Shore sent them back to us, pink petals on our toes.
But they did not send Shawn back. He was not theirs to return.
He is his Maker’s.
He is not ours, though we can still recall the exact sound of his laugh and the precise tone of his voice, as if he had only just called out to us from the other room.
Last January, I stood on a moonlit shore listening to a legendary Hawaiian surfer tell me what he had seen and heard from his beach-front house on January 14. The hem of my turquoise sundress trailed in the water like a mermaid’s bedraggled tail.
I am no mermaid. I know maple trees, and I love the green hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The water that tugged at my dress frightened me. But this man had known waves for decades, and he loved the wild waters of Oahu’s North Shore. He told story after story, while I began to see rightly and truly the place where I stood. I began to see these dangerous waters through the lens of this man’s great love for them.
He spoke of fire and a noise like thunder and of waves so high it was as if the ocean understood. The ocean offered up its own anguish before we knew to offer ours. Shawn and the eleven men flying with him that night did not die unseen in a swirl of chaos. They died in a known place, in a much-loved place; a door opened for them, and arms of welcome enfolded them, in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth.
“If I could choose the spot where I would die and be buried, I would choose these waves right here,” the man told me.
I have thought many times since our conversation of an Old Testament tale:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
And Elisha, who loved him, went on walking, alone, as the reflection of heavenly fire faded from his eyes, and the skies returned to their ordinary, silent gray.
There was no door in the sky for Elisha, and there is no door for us, as yet.
The fire has faded, and the wind has stilled. One year later, rainbows are harder to come by.
And yet, when I slow my usual busyness, when I pause and reflect, I realize that the hems of our clothing still trail through salty water. The turtle-dotted waves of the North Shore offered a kind of baptism, and we have not shaken that water off yet.
God willing, we never will.
This is living water. It poured from the cross when an innocent man, and the maker of us all, died to set things right. Shawn chose every day to hide his life in the life of the innocent One who defeated death, and so his death shares in the power of Christ’s own. Losing Shawn has left us shocked and grieving, yes, but the loss has also unleashed rivers of living water.
And even when we cry we trail streams of rainbow glory.
Shawn Campbell’s legacy.
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.
(the following post contains affiliate links)
If you know me, then you’ll have guessed that the “all new” in the title of this post does not, in fact, refer to newly released books. In fact, once I went looking for links online, I realized that almost every single book I wanted to tell you about is out of print.
But don’t let that deter you! Fortunately, the internet makes searching for and purchasing used books very easy. You can follow the amazon links below, or you can search Abe Books or Powells. You could also do what I do: keep a list of authors to look for the next time you visit a used bookstore or thrift store.
So, what do I mean by all new? I mean that these are some of our favorite seasonal books, but I have never mentioned them on the blog before. You can find all of the Advent and Christmas books I have already recommended over here on one handy page.
Why so many books? Who has time for reading during this, one of the busiest months of the year? I love what Sarah Arthur has to say in Light Upon Light:
So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation.
First, lest you imagine that picture books are only for children, I recommend Lisbeth Zwerger’s version of The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Zwerger is a prize-winning illustrator from Vienna. Her art is strange but lovely and is the perfect thoughtful foil for the disturbing whimsy and intelligence of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker tale. While I have shared this long picture book with my older children, I think this book would make a wonderful gift for any adult who appreciates art and literature.
The next book I’ll mention couldn’t be more different than Zwerger’s, but it is a new favorite in our house. Christmas For 10 by Cathryn Falwell is a counting Christmas book featuring multiple generations of an African-American family. My four-year-old loves it because she can count along, my older kids are drawn into it because of the bright cut-paper illustrations, and I love it for its depiction of ordinary Christmas fun like stringing popcorn and filling gift baskets. I am also grateful to have a Christmas book featuring a non-white family. Unfortunately, this is still very rare in Christmas picture books.
The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams is more than a little unexpected (a Christmas book about a family of Easter egg-painting rabbits??), but it is a thrift store gem. I had never heard of Adrienne Adams before I picked up a used copy of this book, but her illustrations are so appealing.
And though I picked this one up for the pictures, the story is wonderful, too. It’s a bit of a Christmas coming-of-age tale, as the rabbit children turn the tables on their hardworking parents by surprising them with a memorable outdoor Christmas party. Adams’ illustrations of an egg-decorated Christmas tree and rabbit families sledding a snowy hill under a full moon are equally memorable.
Christmas in the Country by Cynthia Rylant is my favorite kind of picture book. It is almost like a picture-book version of a literary memoir: Rylant’s recollection of a country Christmas from her childhood is spare and straightforward, yet the small memories seem to add up to so much more than is at first apparent. I could read this one over and over.
My children, on the other hand, much prefer The Worst Person’s Christmas by James Stevenson. I wasn’t even planning to mention this story of a truly awful Christmas curmudgeon, except that my kids have begged for it every night this week. When I refused to read it one more time, my oldest decided that she would read it out loud instead. Three pages in and my boys were howling.
Fortunately, the horrifying behavior of “the worst person in the world” can’t persist against the unrelenting cheer and kindness of his neighbors. His insults may be horrifying (to me) and hilarious (to my children), but the story has a sweet ending.
If you need a break from the picture books, I’ve been enjoying Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope. These Victorian short stories offer the best of an old-fashioned British Christmas with the usual concerns of nineteenth-century literature. These are stories of roast beef, plum pudding, property, and humorous misunderstandings neatly resolved by the end of Christmas Day.
I’ve always enjoyed classic British murder mysteries from the 1930s. A Christmas Party: A Seasonal Murder Mystery by Georgette Heyer is wickedly fun and clever. I recommend reading it near a roaring country house fire. However, I found that a small kitchen woodstove will do in a pinch.
Happy reading and blessed Advent.
This year, the women’s ministry at my Pennsylvania church published an Advent devotional with written reflections from twenty-nine of our parish women. I was honored to write a reflection for the first Sunday of Advent, and I am so glad to be able to share it here, too.
The following piece appears in Behold, God’s Promises, an Advent devotional from the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA. You can download the entire devotional for free here.
Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent are from the Daily Office (Year 1) in the Book of Common Prayer: Psalms 146, 147, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matt. 25:1-13
Peter told us the scoffers would come, but I never imagined they would speak with the voices of my own children.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the six of us gather at the dining room table where our Advent wreath lies ready for us.
My younger son grips the candle snuffer and asks, “Why do we do this every year?”
“To remember Jesus came and will come back again,” I tell him.
“What’s taking so long?!” he says.
His older brother and older sister chime in, “It’s been thousands of years!” Their baby sister echoes, “Thousands!”
My children, like those scoffers Peter warned against, believe “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Day follows day like a soothing lullaby until we, like virgins waiting with our lamps, drift complacently to sleep.
Even my oldest child cannot remember a day beyond twelve years ago, and yet how confident they are life will go on always the same.
I look at their faces and remember well those years when there were no children in my home. I cried for children and prayed for children and witnessed four times the power of God to change everything. Like Mary before me, I sing, “… the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).
In a moment the world is changed utterly.
In a moment our ordinary is shattered by joy.
If a voice in our culture, or our home, or even our own heart says, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” do not listen and despair. With every turning of this planet, with every setting of the sun, with every swish of the calendar page, we are nearer.
This Advent season we are nearer.
Prayer: Dear Father, wake us for this Advent journey. You, our bridegroom, have been a long time in coming, and we do grow weary. Remind us of your nearness and impress on our hearts the reality of your return. Make us ready to welcome you. Amen.