I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.
Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.
Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.
After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby. I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.
Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.
The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.
This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes. When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?
Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.
She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.
At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.
I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.
“Would you like to hold him?”
The answer will always be yes.
I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.
But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?
I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.
I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.
His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.
Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?
Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.
Let earth receive her king.
Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.
Advent has nearly reached its fulfillment, yet I am finding the peace it promises just a little harder to grasp as Christmas approaches.
How easily I can be undone by one two-year-old with a permanent marker and an extra-long grocery list.
My friend Ashley has given me a gift this morning. It took me longer than anticipated to post it for you because I can’t stop re-reading it. I want to feel the truth of it that desperately. I want to forget the fourteen things still on my to-do list. I want to be overwhelmed in the way she describes.
By his light.
We drive I-5 through Oregon’s mid-section, far from major cities, and the sky is pitch, punctuated occasionally by lines of Christmas lights and the glow of solitary windows.
For hours, days, anxiety has coursed through my body, and now in the silence of our car, I feel I may succumb to overwhelm – so many details and inadequacies pressing down on my shoulders, shouting through the quiet. But the light finds me in the calls of the dark, and then my eyes are downright searching for the light – this steadying hand, this hope slicing through.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
Out the window I see a curtain of pitch night, and then a parting to reveal the light. Light, light, light. Night.
As we follow the winding freeway, I wonder at those who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and animal back, following the light, not a road, to their destination. Keeping course by the new star on a journey itself until it came to the One worthy of all praise.
I consider the wise men’s trek to Perfect Love held within a little boy’s body, their joy at finally beholding Jesus’s light. I imagine their overwhelm bursting forth in worship, gratitude and praise, the offering of awe, gifts from hands and mouths.
Overwhelm usually speaks to burial and drowning, utter defeat. And I know this when limitations glare and glower, and I feel I might go under. But as I watch through my window at how Light overtakes the dark, I know I truly cannot be consumed by my own mind or this world.
Just look at how light pierces through. And I am guided to the place where He is, and I am overwhelmed.
Ashley Larkin is a story collector, wife to Michael and mother to three shining daughters (ages 12, 9 and 6). She longs to be a place of welcome and seeks hard after the hope and grace found in broken things. A writer, Ashley recently has embraced God’s call to speak to groups of women, as well. She delights in sharing face to beautiful face about our completeness and utter beloved-ness in Christ. Ashley and her family live in a 110-year-old house in Portland, Oregon with a grove of horse chestnut trees that clearly has taken over. You can find her blogging about living fully awake to the messy glory of everyday moments here and on Twitter here.
Four candles lit. Can you believe it?
The season of Advent will soon be fulfilled. Christmas is near. And I am so pleased to share these words from my friend Allison. A fellow writer and gardener, Alison and I met at church. When I say thank you for the many good gifts I have received since moving to Pennsylvania, Allison is always near the tippy-top of that long list. I love being able to introduce you to her today.
Why Christmas is Not About Giving
Sometimes I really hate getting gifts.
It’s not the gifts themselves I hate. It’s the getting part.
You know the feeling. Your co-worker unexpectedly gets you a Christmas gift, and you can’t hide the fact that you never intended to get one for her. Or your friend buys you an expensive present that you love, and you wonder if you spent enough money and effort to get him a comparable gift.
Sometimes I love giving gifts more than getting them. I get excited about brainstorming creative gift ideas for family and friends—homemade food items or crafts, books I know they’ll like, fair trade gifts, something fancy they couldn’t justify buying for themselves, or something they didn’t know they wanted. I can’t wait to see their faces when they unwrap what I got them and see just how well my gifts fit who they are. I even get a little jealous if they gush over something that someone else got them.
As much joy as I get from giving, it can be a distraction. It can even be selfish. “[E]veryone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity,” writes William Willimon in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.”
Giving involves power. I love to be the strong one who tips well, who feels good about writing the big check for the soup kitchen, who tries to do more than my fair share of listening to and helping my friends, who doesn’t mind spending a little extravagantly to get my family what they really want. I want them to be indebted to me, maybe even dependent on me. They usually appreciate my gifts, but even if they don’t, I get to feel useful and generous.
For me, Christmas is too often an opportunity to secure a little more power in my relationships through giving. But Christmas isn’t about using gifts to gain power. It isn’t even about using gifts to express love for people.
Willimon puts it bluntly: “We prefer to think of ourselves as givers—powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are.”
Christmas is about receiving the gift of God Himself. In this relationship, we have no power at all. We are embarrassingly needy, dependent on the generosity of another. We are forever in His debt with no hope of reciprocating. We now have the costliest, most precious gift imaginable—God’s gift of His very self. A gift we despised and rejected, because we were too proud to admit we needed it.
This lesser-known Christmas carol reminds us of just how much Christ gave—and gave up—for us:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
He impoverished Himself, left the glories of heaven, came down to our level, spent all He had on us so that we, through His poverty, might become rich.
So in the remaining days before Christmas, set aside those glittering gifts. Open your hands. See how empty they are. As empty as a virgin’s womb. Now stretch out your hands toward the manger. Receive the Christ child, and the wealth of His love, into your arms.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes. And this is why God’s Name is blessed above every other name, for He is the all-powerful Giver. “Hallelujah! Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Allison Sheeler Duncan is a writer and theology nerd who is learning (slowly) to love receiving gifts as much as she loves giving them. She works as a communications specialist at a university in southeast Pennsylvania, and she enjoys writing in calligraphy, growing heirloom tomatoes, and singing at least some of the right notes in the alto section of her church choir. She blogs at www.shiningfromshookfoil.com.
I am incredibly grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the internet.
But there is nothing like sitting face to face. Nothing like talking over cups of coffee while children run through our legs (or beg for another push on the swing). Campbell has been that friend to me, and I am grateful beyond words.
Campbell is also a smart and talented writer, and she’s written the Advent reflection I desperately needed as Christmas Day approaches.
Every year, I am surprised when the world doesn’t seem to grow brighter, lighter as Christmas nears. Every year, at about this point, I wonder what is the point? The news goes from bad to horrific, and, like Campbell, I fear Christmas joy will never be found. Peace is impossible.
But here is hope. Here is the light that shines in darkness. That has not, nor ever will be, overcome.
Looking for Christmas
I’m looking hard for Christmas this year. I feel my broken edges, sharp and pointy, and I’m tired and weary from the world. I’m needing something holy. I’m trying to find Jesus, trying hard to see the babe in swaddling clothes, the one who brings light and love and makes things right again.
Maybe Christmas looks like twinkly lights, strung along roof lines and spun around bushes. Is this holiness – these tiny dots of light, twisted and tied into a brighter picture? One small LED bulb isn’t much on its own, but step back a bit and I can see the shape of a reindeer, or the letters that spell out “peace.”
My small light isn’t much on its own, either. Sometimes, even, a bulb or two are missing or out. Maybe if I string my little light offerings with your little sparks we can step back and see His burst of glory, the grand story spelled out in twinkles. Peace for each other, one small light at a time.
Maybe Christmas is like this: – maybe it’s the late night rock concert, where I’m sitting with folks who I know and folks I don’t and it smells like sweat and beer. It seems about as holy as donkey poop and hay. The darkness inside the theater is not unlike the winter dark.
The show has built with percussive intensity and it’s nearing the end. I’ve scooted my way to the edge of my seat. My body is prickly with emotional electricity, as if I could start a forest fire, standing too close to tinder and kindling. She stands at the edge of the stage, surrounded by her bandmates, lit up like a Christmas tree, and after one big breath in she lets it all out: “Rivers and roads” she belts out with emotional intensity, “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. The strength of her voice is punctuated by a sharp drumbeat and with it the lights die out. The theater is absolutely dark, utterly quiet. Maybe like Bethlehem?
She breathes deep, maybe we all do, and she sings it again “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. We are in darkness again.
This year has been nothing but tinder and kindling, and I’m in flames.
I think Christmas is like this: the pitch darkness, the creeping loneliness, the cold intensity of a world too big, too hard, too closed in. And when the light bursts back, it’s with this same message: till I reach you. To reach me. Rivers, roads, fields, trees, stars, stables, donkeys. It is all the message, and all the means, and it is Jesus here, in this darkness, in this theater, in my heart, reaching. Reaching. Boom. The show lights are back on.
We buried our grandfather, generous patriarch of this wide family, this week. He lived a glorious life, but there is heartache and sadness as we think of a tomorrow with no Grandpop in it. Can the babe in swaddling clothes be here, too, graveside with our grieving family, listening to Taps on the bugle behind us?
It’s through this veil of tears that somehow I see that He is here. He’s reaching us, rivers and roads, to hold hands and wrap His arms of love around me, around you. Not like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I used to see in the mirrors in the produce section at the grocery store, a fancy image of what I wanted to see. But instead Jesus is God himself, with me. He became human, cried human tears, laughed human laughs. Maybe He had heart burn and runny noses. He got tired and hungry and angry and hurt. And He loved. He gave love, He showed love, He is love.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t know where to look for Jesus, or how to find Christmas this year. What I’m finding is that it can all be holy, because in God becoming human He sanctified it all. His holiness is everywhere. And through sadness and weariness, He’s reaching me with twinkle lights and rock concerts.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it on her blog and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds. Campbell’s work has also appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode.
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.