If you are a parent or teacher or camp counselor, you know the forms I’m talking about.
One for each child. Name, birthdate, address. Mother’s cellphone and father’s cellphone. Mother’s email and father’s email.
It’s the final question that gives me trouble: EMERGENCY CONTACT PERSON. If the parents cannot be reached, who should we call?
For more than three years, I have left that line blank. On school forms and dance studio forms. On swim team forms and class field trip forms.
Empty. Blank. Missing.
There is no one to call.
We’ve never lived near family. Grandparents are once-or-twice-a-year treats. My children trade Christmas gifts with cousins they have yet to meet.
When we left Chicago, we said goodbye to more than our third-floor-lake-views-if-you-squint apartment. We said goodbye to neighbors who would knock on our door if our two-year-old escaped during the party and wandered down the stairs toward the front door and the busy street just beyond it. We said goodbye to the family in the basement apartment who could always take in our kids if an emergency came up. We said goodbye to all the friends on the blocks around us – friends whose children we had sheltered while their mothers and fathers welcomed new siblings at the downtown hospital, or, more terribly, said hospital goodbyes to siblings they would never bring home.
We left behind every one of our Emergency Contacts. Since then, I’ve learned you do not easily or quickly replace such things.
When our fourth baby arrived two weeks before grandma’s scheduled visit, we called our realtor. She was the only one who’d met our children or seen the inside of our home.
Yesterday, I filled out four more forms. The final blank lines felt a little blanker, a little emptier. They asked, not for an emergency contact, but for sponsors. These were baptismal forms. Later this summer, we’ll turn our church into a mini waterpark when we baptize four children all at once.
Even if I keep expectations low (this is a sponsor, after all, not necessarily a godparent or guardian), I wish someone could be there. A witness to our lives. Someone to stand in the crack. Someone who will always be there to remember with the firstborn. To tell the story to the fourth. Someone to make us all feel like nothing is missing.
Except, something is always missing. Something is always cracked and broken.
For a long time, I convinced myself that the most broken things and places were out there. Poverty and gun violence. Orphan crises and war. And, for the most part, this is true. There is a terrible darkness in this world, but it doesn’t live in my house. And if I have one goal in life, it’s to make sure that my home is a shelter for anyone looking for relief from the world’s dark places. We all need a place to rest before we head back out again, lights in hand.
However, I’m discovering that aloneness and disconnection are cracks that run just about everywhere. Through every heart. Every relationship. Every home and neighborhood and community. Even my own.
In our house, two sons share a room. With the volume turned low, it is storybook perfect. In real life, it is loud and late and lego-filled. But as much as I sometimes dream of sticking them in separate rooms so I can get a little peace and quiet at the end of the day, God-help-me, this sharing is a good thing. It is a good thing because they are never really alone.
The older brother will fall asleep. Then, the little brother lies there, still awake, and it doesn’t matter that his brother’s head is two feet from his own. It doesn’t matter that his parents are right downstairs.
He feels alone, abandoned by a brother who would choose sleep over one more lego creation, and he weeps.
He cries himself to sleep.
The truth is we can be alone in a crowd. We can be alone even when our brother is within reach of our tiny four-year-old arm.
Some people might tell you it’s God or Jesus who fills in those cracks. They might say we’re chasing the wrong things when we look to fill our empty places, our blank lines with other people.
But I think they may be wrong.
The story of Adam and Eve and Eden might not tell us much about the science behind the world’s creation. I do think it tells us everything about these cracks and missing pieces. It tells me that in the beginning of our story we lost something precious. We lost the closeness (so close you might call it oneness) we once enjoyed with other people. We lost the closeness we once had with our Maker.
This story we’re living is all about recovering that precious thing.
I don’t know how to make the blanks and cracks and disconnections disappear. I do know that if we lean in to them – really pay attention to them – we might glimpse the end of our story. The beautiful end. Which will be, of course, a new beginning.
“With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
We married young and hit the road. All we wanted was Texas dust in the rearview mirror. The rumble of the El was our siren song.
We weren’t afraid because we carried this around like a turtle shell: Church.
Baptist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ … ours was a messy family stew that had finally deposited us both in a non-denominational box.
The box was what we knew. The box felt safe.
But boxes, it turns out, don’t travel well, and we were wanderers now. D.C., Chicago, Jacksonville, now this little country corner of the Philadelphia burbs.
Church has been a constant, but it’s been anything but safe. Anything but predictable. Not really a turtle shell, after all.
We thought there was one right way to do church. One right way to be the church. The way we were raised, of course.
But God kept us moving, and he kept our ideas about church moving, too. What had been small and safe became big and wild. Beautiful but unpredictable.
I’ve been thinking about those first Christians. They were “scattered” by persection, made wanderers for God’s own purposes. They wandered, and the church grew.
As we wandered, our understanding of church grew, too. Always bigger, always better than we knew.
I’ve sat in a Catholic mass and realized that the Eucharist might be more than the sum of its parts. Much more than the saltines and grape juice of my childhood.
I’ve stood in a gathering of Vineyard women when the doors of our meeting-place burst open with a loud wind. I watched that wind sweep around the room but I knew those doors didn’t open to the outside. What I saw and felt was no earthly wind but Pentacost miracle.
I’ve sat in an Easter morning service when the procession of colorful vestments and golden cross was so beautiful, so celebratory, I could have wept.
I once sat in an old wooden pew. A choir lifted its voice, and I suddenly knew what heaven sounds like.
I’ve seen adults baptized in Lake Michigan.
I’ve seen babies baptized with a cupful of water.
All of it so good.
Recently, we’ve taken to driving a long, long way to get to church. It’s something I’ve always said I’d never do. Join the imperfect neighborhood church, don’t go chasing “perfect” miles away. Perfect doesn’t exist.
But I don’t think I’m chasing perfect. I think I’m searching for home. The place where this wanderer can find rest.
Maybe this will be my church for a season. Maybe for a long, long time. Only my second Sunday there, and I was fretting about it instead of worshipping. I could hardly hear the music because I was listening to thoughts like these: Is this the place? Are we right to come so far? Will we make friends here? Or wil we set off searching, again?
The music finally broke through, and I realized what we were singing: Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.
I have been given so much more than one day. I’ve been given a lifetime of Sundays. A lifetime of small groups and youth groups. Of church retreats and coffee hours.
We pile the kids in the car and drive and drive. We do it because we need that soft brown bread. We need that sweet red wine.
We do it because one day in His courts really is that good.
Their minivan is stuffed with children and luggage, all the paraphernalia of a Christmas well celebrated. The late December sun is too weak to soften the wind’s bite so we rush inside to wave goodbye from the window.
The kids and I wave frantically, and it is as if we are saying goodbye to good friends, to Christmas, to this entire year.
In a few more days I will look ahead, but now is the time for saying goodbye. For looking back. For remembering.
In one year everything has changed.
One year ago, I had three children and little hope of more.
One year ago, I lived in the south and grieved the loss of northern winters.
One year ago, I dreamed of a farmhouse with room for chickens and vegetables while my single, potted tomato withered in the Florida sun.
On year ago, we spent the holidays alone and wondered if we’d ever again spread a feast across the length of our dining table for a crowd of friends and family.
This year is dying, but it has left me with these gifts: four children, an old farmhouse, a large garden, and the perfect spot for a chicken coop.
And this: hospitality, community. We now live within driving distance of our dearest friends. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear from someone we love: “We’ll be in Pennsylvania. Can we come and see you?”
I live in a Victorian farmhouse with several acres of land, but the fields all around have been parceled into home sites. Now that the leaves have fallen I can look out of my windows and see houses. I don’t yet know who lives in them, but one day I will. One day, their children will run up the hill and through the break in the fence to play with mine. One day, I will wave hello through the line of trees with an invitation to help pick blueberries. Or apples. Or tomatoes.
One day, one day, one day …
This is the greatest gift of this year: I have been brought to a place with a future.
In other words, I have been given a home.
“I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.”
Jeremiah 32: 40-41
I grew up hearing Christians say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Maybe you did too?
It’s a sentiment that makes sense to me. Plenty of not-so-great things (and some down-right awful) probably fall under the heading religion. Yet, in the days since Easter Sunday I’ve been thinking how grateful I am for relationship and religion.
Because Jesus came to us, we can see and know God. This is true not only because he died and defeated death, but because he lived. He lived. And now we know what life was always meant to be. Through Jesus we can relate to a God who is vast, beyond comprehension, and yet personal in his love for his creation. Now we live, not by bread only, but by relationship with the Word.
What good is religion, then? Isn’t it merely the false, the superficial, the man-made?
It is also the form so many souls have given (and will give) to their worship. It is an often intangible relationship made material: in bread and wine, the washing of dirty feet, the standing, the kneeling, the hands reaching out in praise and in prayer.
It is candlelight. It is incense. It is light glinting on a gold cross. It is a crescendo of voices. It is one voice reading Scripture aloud for an entire hushed crowd.
It is astonishing and creative.
It is beautiful and traditional.
Of course, it can also be awkward and frustrating. The uncomfortable pew. The piano in need of tuning. My five-year-old deciding he must visit the bathroom just as our row is ushered forward for the Eucharist.
Sometimes we do religion well. Sometimes not so well. And it sure takes a whole lot of effort. The musicians spend hours practicing. The tech-savvy come in early, stay late, and shrug off the irritated looks when the sound system malfunctions through no fault of their own. A dedicated teacher takes the two-year-olds outside for an egg hunt, and some important but often unseen person lingers behind to turn off lights and lock doors.
Is it worthwhile?
Jesus showed us the value in celebration, in gathering, and in breaking bread together. He read Scripture aloud, and he taught. He often prayed alone, but he also begged his friends to pray with him. And in his eagerness to eat a Passover meal with his disciples (Luke 22:15), Jesus promised that our rituals and God-given traditions will one day find their fulfillment – their perfection – in the kingdom of God.
For now it takes effort, whether we gather in a home, a school gymnasium, or an art-filled, stained-glass space. The bread must be baked. The invitations delivered. The space cleaned before and after. But, together, we are creating an outward expression of an inner joy.
We are saying “thank you” and “please come” to all that has been promised.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before
the Lord our Maker.”
That’s the name lettered over the door of the small shop. Home At Last. It makes me laugh. Somewhat bitterly, I’m afraid.
On this day, we are fifteen-years married, and, to celebrate, we wander the streets of this Texas hill-country town, the fruit of our union miles away at Grammie and Granddad’s house.
Sitting down to eat lunch amidst a babbling brook of soft, Texas accents, we talk about home. We may have grown up in this place, but each return only emphasizes how far we’ve fled. We’ve lived away nearly as long as we lived within, and even the memory of Texas as home is fading.
Our waiter asks where we’re from, and I suddenly realize how often we’ve heard this question today. Why? How do they know? Jonathan wrinkles his forehead and says, “Well, we don’t have accents?” Maybe, I say. Then my husband, the one I often imagine to be the less observant in our partnership, states what should have been obvious: “I don’t think we look like Texans. At least not small-town, hill-country Texans.”
My husband sits across from me in skinny cords and a sweater vest, looking unsure, and I laugh because the truth is suddenly so obvious. The men who pass by our window are all dressed as if they’ve just left either a football stadium or a deer blind. They are window shopping with their wives, they are nowhere near a stadium or a deer blind, but they look utterly at home.
Where are we from? We can no longer answer that question. It did take years, but at one time I could say “Chicago” with ease. Now, each time we’re asked, Jonathan says, “We live in Florida,” but we both know that this is not the answer to “where are you from?” or even “where is your home?”
We have a house in Florida, but we only dream about home.
I like to imagine that home is somewhere with snow. The kids tell me it’s a place with room for a dog.
Others tell me that the ache for home is all there is. At least for now. At least on earth.
I don’t believe them.
Home is too good. Too necessary.
We may be souls walking the shadowlands, but these shadows are God-made and God-breathed. The place that feels like home may only be a taste of what’s in store, but it is still good.
And the best part? To find a home is to reach, not an end, but a beginning.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about darkness is that it tells us we are alone.
Darkness, it lies.
Long ago, the church began celebrating its new year during winter’s darkest days. This seems right and good, to me. It’s in times of darkness that we most need to be reminded that we do not wait alone.
Whether or not we’re able to attend church regularly, whether or not we’ve found a place to call our church “home,” and whether or not we truly feel at home there, we do not wait alone.
I believe that this is true, even on the days when it doesn’t feel true. Even on the days when I find community in the pages of a book written decades ago rather than in flesh-and-blood conversation.
In fact, waiting with others is the point of Christian community. One of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen puts it well:
“The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. … We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment – that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.” (from “A Spirituality of Waiting,” as written in my Book of Quotations)
Sometimes I feel lost in the darkness, whether it is a global darkness (famine, crimes against children, poverty) or the darkness that descends when I forget that life is not meant to be as complicated as I sometimes make it (with my buying, my rushing, my worrying).
Advent reminds me to slow down, to light my candle, to find comfort in the many candles lit around me, and to know, again, that if the only thing I do most days is wait patiently, with thanksgiving, then I have lived well.
“The Photographer,” otherwise known as Kelli Campbell, invites each of you to contribute your own Advent images to the Advent Flickr group. If you are not a photographer, we hope you will still join both of us there to watch as the season quietly unfolds in pictures.