“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.
Ready or not the seasons are shifting.
Of course, we know in our heads that all time moves at the same speed, but our hearts simply will go on beating to some other, more mysterious, rhythm.
Sometimes the gap between those two experiences of time feels like a chasm. We stand on the edge, our hearts out of sync with the calendar, and we fear we will tumble, head over heels, into emptiness. But there are other days. Like Advent days. Then the gap between head-time and heart-time becomes a sacred place and a welcome retreat.
In the last November chapter of Roots and Sky, I wrote this:
I believe in sacred time. We may live in a world of Sunday-morning soccer games, Sunday-afternoon birthday parties, and twenty-four-hour shopping, but I believe there are days when eternity floods our time-bound existence. Days like a cup that runneth over. I also know that without some effort on my part, all time tends to look exactly the same, whether or not it is the same. Advent is beginning, and I want to set aside the days. To mark them off and probe their depths.
The primary way I do that, alone and together with my husband and children, is through books. If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that my archives are full of book recommendations for Advent and Christmas. I recently updated the page ( These Farmhouse Bookshelves) where you can explore all those links.
However, with Advent beginning on Sunday, and the first of December only days away, I thought a little roundup was in order. Here are several new-to-me titles and a shelf-full of old favorites.
And, for those of you who can’t think of Advent until after you’ve eaten your Thanksgiving turkey, here is my latest post at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on grief and gratitude and includes a recipe for the prettiest dish I placed on my holiday table last year. Enjoy!
My friend Kris Camealy has just published a beautiful new Advent devotional, Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting. I read an advance copy months ago, but I am looking forward to reading it again, more slowly and prayerfully, through the month of December.
I have forgotten now who recommended to me Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Sarah Arthur. I’ve only skimmed the pages, but these words from the book jacket have me eager to dive in: “Readers are invited to experience Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment ….” Those words remind me of Madeleine L’Engle’s description of Advent as The Irrational Season (another favorite book for this season).
Two devotionals I have always appreciated in the past are God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas from Paraclete Press and Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, a collection that includes selections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, and many others
During Advent, we aim to light the candles in our Advent wreath and read a special devotional each evening together. I say aim because, of course, there are nights when I call the whole thing off because all four of the kids insist on fighting over the candle snuffer. I have also learned (the hard way) not to expect my children to sit still for nightly readings without also giving them freshly-sharpened colored pencils and a Christmas coloring book like the Christmas Around the World Coloring Book by Dover.
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp has been a great companion to our Jesse Tree, but it would make an ideal daily devotional for a family even if you do not decorate a Jesse Tree. This is a substantial book with gorgeous illustrations. The language is rich and poetic enough to capture the attention of my older kids, but the readings are brief and linked to familiar Bible stories, so it works for younger children, too. If you only have very young children, I recommend using The Jesus Storybook Bible for your Advent devotions. There are exactly twenty-four stories from the beginning through to the wise men visiting the infant Jesus, making it perfect for introducing small children to the bigger story of Jesus’s birth during the month of December.
For years, I gave my children a new Advent or Christmas-themed picture book each Sunday of Advent. We now have an impressive collection, though I picked up most of the books during the year for twenty-five cents at a local thrift store. This does mean that our collection is less, well, curated than I might like. But a picture book we all love this time of year is Astrid Lindgren’s Christmas in Noisy Village. This is a delightfully simple description of Christmas celebrations on three Swedish farms packed with young children.
Last year, we read a strange little novel called The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. You may know Sophie’s World, also written by this former professor of philosophy from Norway. Some of the strangeness may come from Gaarder’s philosophical bent, and some of it may simply be the little things that can be lost in translation, but the result is a curious, compelling Advent mystery that my kids and I both loved. The story follows the opening of a magical Advent calendar, and so it is already divided into chapters readymade for daily Advent reading. The central mystery involves a journey back through history to the very day and place of the Christ Child’s birth. It reads like following a thread back to that particular momentous day, and the result is that I felt much more solidly connected to the very first Christmas as an actual historical event.
This year, our readaloud chapter book is Winterfrost by Michelle Houts. We are one chapter in, and the kids are already hooked by this tale of Christmas magic on an isolated Danish farm.
Though our seasonal books have spilled over from shelves to piles on the windowsills, I have added one more new book to our Advent collection this year. It is Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season by Heidi Haverkamp. Designed for small group discussion, I think this one will also work well for families, especially if you plan to read it alongside The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I’d love to hear about your own favorite Advent and Christmas books in the comments.
We planted a tree on Friday.
It is a red oak tree, and we planted it for Shawn.
I’d ordered it in June for fall planting. It arrived at the nursery weeks ago, but somehow I never received the message. I found out it was ready only a few days before my family, the family I so rarely see, came to stay.
We have two shovels. My husband, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew took turns digging. My brother’s wife held the baby who was born the day of Shawn’s memorial service. The baby who shares his name.
The wind was a little too blustery for a nine-month-old more accustomed to Texas heat, but instead of carrying him back inside, I tried to block the wind with my body. I thought of how the tree will grow as he grows.
We tipped the tree out of its container and watered it well. I suppose its leaves were green when it was first set aside for us at the nursery, but now they are mottled with dark red like dried blood and bright red like the berries on our winterberry shrubs.
This tree is young, but it already knows what every tree knows: there is a space between life and death, and it has its own particular beauty.
The story of our world is a story of three trees.
In the beginning there was a tree of life, but we fell from that flourishing green perfection and went on falling until it seemed that death and evil and suffering would always have the last word.
He was like us, yet he did not fall. On a cross fashioned from a broken tree, he submitted to death and suffering, and so defeated them.
Now the power that carried him from death to life is transforming us from the inside out. And it is transforming our world from the inside out. One day that transformation will be complete, the distance between the way things are and the way they were always meant to be will be erased, and we will live in the green shade of another tree of life.
The leaves of that third tree, we are told, “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
I can think of few things I want more.
I can think of few things we need more because words wound as well as sticks and stones and bombs.
Is it only a far-off dream? A happily-ever-after story we pull like wool over our eyes during days of trouble?
The radiant leaves of Shawn’s tree say otherwise. When the wind picks up, I hear them whisper, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30).
Because of Shawn, a tree of life has spread its roots through our family and among many friends. It is as real as this red oak tree. Things that were broken in our hearts or our relationships or our ways of living in the world are being made right. Healing we did not even know we needed has begun.
Our world is caught somewhere between death and life. It is like a tree glowing with autumn color. It breaks our hearts even as it dazzles our eyes.
But the seeds for that third tree have already been sown.
Controversies may swirl and bullets may fly (both metaphorical and all too real), but we are not afraid. We are not dismayed.
We are too busy planting and tending trees.
And that will make all the difference in the world.