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.
Summer days are here: fast, bright, and hot.
We wake early but find that the sun has already beat us to it. These are the longest days, and they start without us. I sip my morning coffee and make my list. How is it possible to feel so behind at 6:30 in the morning?
Summer to-do lists are like none other:
Pick the snap peas while they’re still tender. Cut the sweet peas before they wilt. Visit the u-pick berry farm. Make freezer jam. Write that magazine story due tomorrow. Carve a dent, at least, in the email inbox. Write that check and mail it. Help the boys catch fireflies.
Summer priorities are topsy-turvy. Ripening strawberries and fat peas are things of urgency, but I’ve forgotten where I left my laptop. Was it two days ago, I last used it? There’s an important professional conversation I need to have, but I’ve missed the phone call twice. The first time, I was at the creek with the kids. The second, I was picking cherries.
An afternoon storm rolls in, the kind of summer storm that is all sound, little fury, and I think Lord, I love summer.
The boys start fighting (again), and I pray, Lord, let me survive the summer.
Summer days are so long, we have more than one second chance.
Here is one, and here is another. We explode in anger. We apologize. I make them hug. One shrugs. One runs away. We laugh. And we do it all again, three or four times. I maybe cry once, and then I tell my kids how I used to fight so terribly with my sisters I made my own mother cry.
Summer is crying mothers, and fighting kids; summer is fat, sweet strawberries, and lightning crashing like a cymbal on your head.
Summer is more, and more, and more.
Summer is magic.
Summer days run fast and hard until evening. Then the summer sun slows, almost stops, and you can hardly tell it’s sinking. Summer evenings taste like forever. I could finish that to-do list if I wanted, but urgency fades in the evening. Why didn’t I realize sooner? These are the longest days, and there is time enough.
Swift, swift times flies, but still there is enough for what matters: porch rockers, bubble wands, watermelon, one last visit to the new trees with a watering can.
The kids watch a movie and stay up too late. You and I walk in the meadow we made when you decided to stop mowing the grass.
There is time enough.
Summer is here. Why don’t we sit a while?
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.
I still remember when I discovered Hilary Yancey’s writing online. She writes the kind of sweet-sharp prose that I love. Hers is the beautifully precise storytelling that hurts a little to read but always in the best possible way. I remember thinking, “I hope she writes a book one day.”
I am so pleased to share the following guest post from Hilary with you. She writes for those who are waiting for help or good news but worry time is running out. She writes for those who wonder why there seems to be no miracle for them.
Hilary reminds me that good news unfolds in time. Rarely can we receive it in an instant. Instead, it is, like grace, something that reveals itself slowly. But given time, it will sink its roots down deep into our lives changing, not only our present and our future, but our past as well.
I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.
Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.
We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.
This birthing birthed in me a worry of keeping it together, of keeping on for him, a worry of being enough. I have known this worry before, but it has a different shape in the helpless hallways of a hospital. I was told by every sign and monitor and nurse who ran past me for the red or yellow alarm that I – the mother, the one they say is everything and has been everything – was not the only person my son needed. I was reminded of this when I had to leave Jack’s bedside or faint from not eating. I was reminded when I tossed and turned in the hotel bed that felt suddenly empty.
It ripped me wide, this birth into hand sanitizer rituals and the required removal of wedding rings, these quiet conference rooms where the patient in bed 34 was the topic of conversation, where my son was the patient in bed 34. In all this worry I lost the thread that binds us back together. I lost the thread of the hem of the robe of Jesus.
I think of the woman and her hemorrhages. I think of myself and the way I seemed to hemorrhage confidence and trust as I walked the same dreaded hallways. Is that how she felt, finally seeing his feet passing her by, walking somewhere else? Why didn’t he stop for me – I’ve been here for years – what other house must he go to? What other miracle is more worthy than mine?
I became, this past year, the woman suffering from hemhorrages. I sat down on the side of the road and day after day I thought Jesus would never walk by, that I would never get the chance to reach out for his robe. I wondered if there was any strength left to do even that. When I was pregnant with my son I used to read him the Jesus Storybook Bible. “‘We don’t have time!’ Jesus’ friends said. But Jesus always had time. He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.’
Just then, Jairus’ servant rushed up to Jairus. ‘It’s too late,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Your daughter is dead.’ Jesus turned to Jairus. ‘It’s not too late,’ Jesus said. ‘Trust me.’”
There is the place where Jesus is going. And then there is the woman I believe he always waited for along the road. I believe that road wanders through the bright hallways of the hospital, past me, that he always has enough time for me to reach out for his robe.
And now, one year later, I open the book to this page, to this story. I am the woman with her fingers grasping the edge of Jesus and I am the woman receiving grace from him, a grace that pours back over the worrying, the disbelieving, the many days when I walked the hallways in quiet desperation. Even when I thought there was no time – Jesus has always had more than enough. Jesus was waiting, maybe even trusting, that we will stop him and touch the hem of his robe.
Hilary Yancey is mama to Jack, wife to Preston and in the midst of getting a PhD in philosophy from Baylor University. When she isn’t chasing an idea, a busy toddler, or learning the first few steps in her adult beginner ballet class, you can find her writing at her blog the wild love or on Instagram at @hilaryyancey.
We are rounding the bend. We are nearing the end.
These sacred days will soon reach their fulfillment.
With Christmas on the near horizon, I am so pleased to offer you this Advent story from my friend and fellow writer, Bonnie O’Neil.
The memories come flooding back to me, as they do on many a cold, dark December night. Flashes of a night, just like this one, many years ago. I was younger then, bright-eyed, full of hopes and big dreams.
The streets are deserted, save for my husband and me. I hear the click-clack of my soles on the cobblestones and press forward, click-clack, steady on. My feet, I cannot see. All is belly, swollen with the joy of life inside of me.
The wind howls. I wrap my garments tighter around me.
I reach out for his arm to steady me as I go. My feet falter on the uneven stones; his strong arm upholds me. It is just the two of us in this foreign land. There will be no mother by my side as I prepare to deliver my first-born child.
Inhaling the cold December air, I exhale the promise of all things new and wonderful. My warm breath hangs in the air, luminous against the cold dark night, and I sigh with relief that the child lies safe and warm inside me tonight.
Mystery, all is mystery and wonder. It is just days, hours perhaps, before I step into the vast unknown and begin the mysterious journey of motherhood. All is wonder. What will this child become? What kind of mother will I grow to be? There is much to ponder; there will be much to treasure in my heart.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary and her journey of faith until I was expecting a child of my own. All is Nativity in December, so when you are awaiting your own Christmas baby, I suppose it is natural to stop and reflect on the wonder not just of the incarnation of the Christ child, but also of the faith of the young woman who said yes to becoming His mother.
She was a teenager; I was 30. But that doesn’t mean I knew any more than she did about babies. In fact, she probably knew more! Her cobblestones graced the streets of Bethlehem, far from her Nazareth home; my stones lined the streets of medieval Paris, where my husband and I were living, farther still from any family or close friends. I can feel her aloneness.
There is no fighting the loss of control. It is too late for that now. I sense her acceptance of “what is”.
Her story was, of course, far more faith-stretching than mine. By faith, she accepted that the impossible would become possible as the Son of God became incarnate within her very womb. By faith, she accepted a life of ridicule and judgment as all manner of false conclusions were drawn about her. By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.
No matter how old we are or how long we have been trying to walk by faith, we all still have times when we feel like Mary. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant. Unqualified to accomplish a small thing, let alone a big thing. And how like our God to come in those moments and ask the big thing of us.
To say yes to God often involves saying no to myself. No to my in-the-moment need for retribution or recognition. To choose the Mary way is to choose the self-emptying way. It requires nothing less than the intentional surrendering of my will so that I may hear the voice of the Father calling to me.
It is the daily invitation to echo the cry of the God-Man, not my will but yours be done.
To embrace the mystery of Christmas is to accept the mystery of the unknown. It is to throw off the burden of needing control and easy answers and choosing instead to entrust our lives to God’s loving hands. It is to choose a life of outrageous faith amidst a world that says it will only believe once it truly understands. It is to declare with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”
In this Advent season, we can all be carriers of the Christ child. We choose every day whom we will serve – the Lord and others, or ourselves. May we, like Mary, choose the mystery of a faith-filled life.
Bonnie O’Neil is a gifted writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, on the edge of bucolic Chester County, and is the mother of three mostly-raised children. She is passionate about helping others experience the God of love, finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, filling her senses with beauty, and exploring all things France.
I am a mother well-acquainted with the fears and anxieties of raising a son with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and Bonnie’s wisdom, born of hard experience, has become a special gift to me. I can say of her what she has written here about Mary: “By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.” With Bonnie’s encouragement, I am doing the same.
Already a consistent blogger, Bonnie has plans to begin writing out the lessons she has learned during her years of raising a medically vulnerable child. I encourage you to sign up here to receive those upcoming blog posts by email.
We’ve been here before: waiting for that callback from the on-call nurse, waiting to find out if we’re headed to the emergency room with this child.
But it never has been this child.
Her older brothers, yes. From staples in the scalp to midnight croup, from epi-pen jabs to that one nightmarish choking incident. We’ve called 911. We’ve opened the door for paramedics. We’ve carried little boys out to the car in the cold and dark of the night.
After thirteen years of parenting, we aren’t frightened by much. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we’ve reached a state of calm. It takes a lot to rattle us.
When Jonathan carried Elsa to the car on Labor Day and headed for the emergency room, I wasn’t afraid. When he called to say they were admitting her to the children’s hospital, I wasn’t afraid. When they told me the next day that she needed to stay for a second night, I wasn’t afraid. Asthma is our family inheritance, after all. From grandmother to mother to daughter and son. It is familiar to us.
When we brought Elsa home again, her virus-weakened lungs having been strengthened by inhalers, and fluids, and oxygen in a snaking tube, we remarked on how capable we had felt through the entire ordeal. Maybe after four children we had learned a thing or two? We know when to call the doctor’s office. We know how to trust (in doctors, in nurses, in God above).
We know how to stay calm.
We know how to move on.
A week has gone by, and it occurs to me there is something I don’t know. I don’t know how to stop seeing it. I don’t know how to forget.
When I lie in bed at night, my mind replays one moment over and over: Elsa, lying in our bed and working so very, very hard to breathe. The muscle at the base of her throat flutters with each quick and shallow breath.
It looks like a small butterfly trapped just beneath her skin.
On Monday, one week after she went into the hospital, we celebrated Elsa’s fourth birthday. She opened presents in the morning, and we ate pink birthday cake in the afternoon, but her favorite thing was the iridescent butterfly balloon.
She carried it around the house. She played with it outside in the yard. She lay down in the grass and held it over her head. All the better to see those butterfly colors against the deep blue of the September sky. All the better to carry on a laughing conversation with a soaring balloon.
The weather lately has fluctuated between just right and still too hot. We’ve spent a lot of time outside in it regardless. Elsa hunts for caterpillars in the herb garden that grows just outside the kitchen door. These particular green caterpillars seem very fond of Italian flat-leaf parsley.
I found one perfect, orange butterfly wing fluttering in the grass. I thought at first it was a butterfly, and I wondered why it didn’t fly away as I approached. Leaning down, I saw that it was only the one wing, caught on a blade of grass, moving back and forth in that day’s hot, dry wind.
Lord have mercy, I thought, this child I love is as fragile and vulnerable as a butterfly.
I am, too, I suppose, no matter how solid my own body feels when I plant my feet on the ground of my garden.
We are gossamer.
We are tissue-thin.
Liable to be whipped about in the slightest wind.
What is it Scripture says?
“The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).
Those words have always made me feel sad. And afraid.
But I have learned how to be unafraid. I have learned that. There is sadness, yes, but there is beauty, too. We are like flowers. We are like butterflies. We are jewel-colored. We fly swiftly. We dance in the wind.
I want to forget, but these are precious things. God, I pray, make me strong enough to remember all of it.
The broken wing.
The brilliant orange.
The broken lungs, and the small, laughing voice.
Give my own weak lungs breath to sing the whole Psalm, all the way through:
“The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children …
Praise the Lord, you his angels …
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, …
Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the Lord, my soul.”