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.
Amy is another friend I owe to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.
We met rather accidentally when we found ourselves seated together in a large auditorium. Yet, it is a wonder we’d never met before. Our paths once crisscrossed through the English department of a Texas university and even at a local church.
Amy is smart and funny and she has excellent taste in books and music. I follow her playlists on Spotify, and I wish I could follow her library card, too.
But most importantly, Amy’s writing makes me uncomfortable. That might sound like criticism, but it is my highest praise. She notices things that must be noticed. She questions things that must be questioned. She knows what we must each learn; she knows that ease and comfort are not always our friends.
And Advent is not for the comfortable.
“When childbirth is normal, the pain is not a sign of injury; rather, as Sheila Kitzinger has said, it is ‘pain with a purpose.’ By acknowledging your pain, working in suggested ways with your body during childbirth, and remembering that the pain will soon end, you will be more likely to put the pain in perspective and to prevent it from overwhelming you…”
(Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn by Penny Simpkin)
72 hours after my water broke, 36 hours after the heavy labor had begun, 3 hours after I started pushing, I gave birth to my firstborn daughter, Rosemary. I had fought, alongside my husband, mother, midwife, sister-in-law, and a bevy of nurses, for her arrival, and when my screams finally quieted, after midnight, snow was falling outside the hospital.
She was born. My husband looked awestruck, said with wonderment, “She’s perfect.”
Weeks later, my body slowly healing, I was still wondering why it had taken so long. I’d labored for hours without seeing any progression: had I been doing something wrong?
My instincts had led me to fight the painful contractions; but upon re-reading the childbirth book, I found that I should have tried to accept each one. I should have welcomed the pain, used it.
As Christmas nears, I find myself thinking of Mary. Did she embrace the pain? Did her labor last for three days, like mine did? I wonder if she understood that her whole life with Jesus would be bookended by pain, from the pain of childbirth to the pain of the cross? I wonder if she understood that when her groaning finally fell silent, the whole earth felt a thrill of hope!
And then continued groaning for its full deliverance.
If I see another beautiful picture of flickering lights or another chocolate advent calendar, I think I’ll scream. This year, all the beauty and the longing and the quiet yearning just feel like cliches to me. I’m tired of waiting. I’m fed up with injustice and violence, death and disease. I can’t bear to see evil triumph again while we keep waiting under twinkle lights and shiny aluminum ornaments. The waiting doesn’t feel beautiful: it feels like those hours and hours of contractions, with no progression.
If these are the labor pains of God’s kingdom being born, what does it mean to embrace them? How can we lean into the pain, our hearts heavy with lament? How long, oh Lord, will these contractions last?
The pain is too much for us. In the prosperous West, we’ve found the epidural of materialism, and made ourselves comfortable for the duration.
But in doing so, what have we lost?
When we can’t feel the pain, we don’t realize how much we need deliverance. How much we depend on hope. Pain teaches us to hope. And somehow, to believe that, these thousands of years later, God is still at work, that the long labor will end, that the new kingdom will truly be born. Leaning into that pain, breathing through it, is how the kingdom will come on earth.
“Labor cannot be controlled,” Penny Simpkin warns. So, too, God’s new kingdom cannot be controlled; it is being born, all around us, whether we fight for it or against it, whether we can see it or not. The weary world will rejoice. God’s kingdom will be born on earth.
And we will be awestruck at its perfection.
Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. She writes about pop culture, church, books, food, intercultural communication, mothering, and education; and always, about what it might mean that God is making all things new. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.
The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.
The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.
Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.
I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.
When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.
The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.
It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.
It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.
When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.
I became depressed.
I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.
When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.
It meant that I knew happiness again.
It meant that I knew sadness again.
Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.
This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.
I wrote a version of this post almost exactly two years ago. In early June of 2012, I had been wandering in a Florida wilderness for two years. I was tired of waiting. Tired of rootless living. I was six months pregnant and desperate to leave Florida. I wanted my baby girl to be born wherever home might be. But I had no idea where home might be.
Six weeks after our arrival in Pennsylvania, Elsa Spring was born. Today, that baby girl is rounding the curve on two years old. And we have come home. Every day I breathe “thank you.”
But it is Pentecost again, and I have realized something. We are lost and we are found, we are lost and we are found again, but we never truly leave this song behind. This beautiful ache of a song.
Pentecost Sunday is approaching, and I feel stuck in that room. Waiting. Asking this question: how did they survive the long, empty days between Jesus leaving and the Comforter coming?
How did they endure being lifted up by the joy of a promise believed only to drop again into the discouragement of yet another not yet?
And why the gap? Why did they have to wait at all?
We do know that the wait moved them to gather together. I imagine the promise was easier to believe when they could see the hope in one another’s faces. When they could pass around their Jesus stories, like a platter of bread and fish. Stories multiplied into hope. And faith.
And I imagine they worshipped. Sang and prayed.
Was this what it was all for? Was their worship the reason?
Did God wait, strain with holding himself back, because he wanted to hear their songs?
“Call to me,” he had once told them. “And I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
Call. My husband tells me this word suggests something organized, something formal. Something created. Like a song. Like a poem. Something more than careless words tossed at the sky.
Maybe you don’t sing songs. Maybe you don’t write poems. But maybe you journal. Maybe you sketch. Maybe you take photographs or bake bread for the neighbors. Maybe you orchestrate elaborate finger-painted messes with the three-year-olds at church and maybe, just maybe, that is a call? A song? A cry of longing for more of God?
And maybe that is the point of it all. The point of waiting. The point of living. To add our call to the many others until a crescendo of sound and beauty and worship rises to heaven and all is unleashed.
Then, just as it was that Pentecost when God’s church was born, wind and fire reveal the great unknowns.
What have we all been waiting for? To hear the mysteries of God’s glory in a language we can comprehend.
Those unsearchable glories we never even knew to seek.
When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.
They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.
Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.
I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.
In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”
Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.
There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.
It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.
It was not easy.
It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.
Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.
But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.
Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”
You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?
Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.
Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.
Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.
And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.
There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.
We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:
God is good.
There is no need to be afraid.
And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.
I spent most of Saturday outside. It looked nothing like spring, but I could feel it. By afternoon we had taken off our jackets and were warming ourselves with shovels and gardening gloves.
The firstborn and I cleared away some of the invasive (but gorgeous) vine that blankets the edge of our property.
Do you remember, I asked her, what the porcelain berries look like? Do you remember that china blue?
They looked fake, she says.
Which is true. And telling. The most beautiful things look unreal to us. Maybe they are a part of some other reality. Maybe we are too, for that matter.
The dead vines were papery and grey in our hands, but when I ripped one open we could see a shocking, acid green.
They only look dead, my daughter said with round eyes.
We are in those last days of winter. Those days when the cold has moved deep into my bones, and I no longer believe in spring.
I mean this quite literally. Three days ago I had myself convinced that the bleached yellow shade of our lawn was a sign it would never turn green. We killed it, I thought. Too many weeds, too many autumn leaves, and we killed it.
Today, I noticed a spotty green haze. Just here and there. And I remembered: I have seen resurrection. There is such a thing.
Six months ago, we named our daughter Elsa Spring. Soon – very soon – she will see her first spring. There are no words for all I feel about that.
Born in late summer, we named her Spring. Our last baby, our second daughter, she is yet everything new to us.
Before she was ever conceived “My beloved spoke and said to me, ‘Arise my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come …” (Song of Songs 2: 10-12).
For a hundred and one foolish reasons I had not allowed myself to want another child, but I knew what those words meant. I bought a tiny, pink sweater, and I hid it in my dresser drawer.
Sometimes winter fools us. We are taken in by the surface of things, and death seems total and irreversible.
The truth is, we aren’t waiting for resurrection. We are living it.
“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem … in summer and in winter.”