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.
“Nothing is perfect.”
Those words cut me. They always have. I don’t care if they’re true because everything in me wants them to be untrue. Everything in me longs for perfection though perfect is as cold and distant as the morning star.
Yet here is the lesson I keep learning over and over again: when perfection falls to earth it veils its light in imperfection.
This house is my perfect dream come true, but Lord-have-mercy it is a mess.
Half the windows can’t be opened, whole chunks of molding are missing near the roofline, there is an ominous bulge in the plaster wall along the stairs, and please do watch your step on the porch. You never know when your foot might crash right through.
I wrote these words in Roots and Sky, though I did not know how true they would become:
“… I picture this house, this hilltop, cracked open. Torn right open. And everyone invited to come in. In this picture, it seems that something precious has been emptied out and is being passed around. It is a frightening, exhilarating vision.”
The thing about a broken, imperfect house is that we cannot live in it alone.
When I met Dr. B (“doctor of old houses”), he told me he had prayed God would bring him another old house to work on.
When I called J about our windows and gave him my name, we both held our phones in a state of shock. Apparently, he had purchased Roots and Sky for his wife only the day before.
Jonathan and I always hoped that this place would be a blessing for many beyond our own immediate family. We glimpsed how that could be true our very first Easter when one hundred neighbors joined us to hunt eggs on the lawn. We sent those invitations to a neighborhood of strangers because we were lonely.
I called these local craftsmen because our house is broken.
Perfectly, beautifully broken.
Praise be to God for broken houses, broken hearts, broken bodies, and all the other precious broken things.
Praise be to God for hands that heal and hands that make things beautiful and whole.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.
I wrote these words exactly one year ago. Today, we will carve pumpkins, adjust costumes, and pull the old decorations from the basement. The boys made a scarecrow last week, but he still needs a pumpkin head.
The kids are so much taller, and Elsa is old enough now to refuse the costume we chose for her. But so much is the same. These words are still true.
My friend looks up toward the trees and says I had forgotten how graceful dying can sometimes be.
I follow her glance and know that she is right. I, too, have forgotten. I remember autumn through snapshots. Which means, I remember the brilliance of that one sugar maple down the road. Or, I remember the startling red of a Burning Bush shrub against a deep blue sky.
The snapshots help me to remember true moments, fiery moments, but they do not give an accurate picture of the whole.
Autumn, taken as a whole, does not look like clear, bright brilliance. Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, it is gentle. Faded. It is burnished gold and copper. It is gray clouds and wet pavement.
This autumn world does not rage against the dying of the light. It smolders, quietly.
Christians like to talk about Halloween on the internet. I have usually abstained from those “conversations.” So much depends upon context. Like the context of our own memories. Like the context of our own communities. Often, the internet is a conversation without a context.
Here is a bit of mine. In the church of my childhood, Halloween was ever-so-slightly taboo. We wore costumes, but we wore them to collect candy at our church’s “Harvest Fair.”
As new parents, we discovered the great adventure of escorting a temperamental two-year-old ladybug down city streets. We stole her candy when she wasn’t watching, and we hugged our neighbors. We tried to catch the eye of their over-tired Dorothy or Scarecrow. To tell each one we had no idea it was them.
Still, decorating my home for Halloween always seemed like a step too far. Until we came here. Now we live in the farmhouse on the hill and how else can we entice our neighbors and their children to climb our hill, to receive our gift of love and candy, but with a few smiling ghosts and candle-lit pumpkins?
Context. It changes things. Changes us.
We live in a culture that largely ignores death.
Our children no longer walk to church through churchyards dotted with graves. Our own church is that rare thing with its own cemetery, but it is all the way around by the back door. My children often ask to walk that way, but I am in a hurry. Another time, I say, as I rush them through the front door.
I am sorry for this. And so, this year, I am grateful for Halloween. I am grateful for the space it opens up. I am less grateful for the gory zombie poster set at a child’s eye level at the local Wal Mart, but mostly I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about death. About dying. About our baptism and what it might mean that we have already died with Christ.
Which is, to say, we will have a conversation about living.
Soon, we will bring out the plywood grave markers my husband made last year. Our kids painted them gray with black crosses and the letters R I P. We will tuck them near the crumbling stone foundations of the old farm buildings, and we will drape them with twinkly lights.
As we outline a path for candy-seeking neighbors, my daughter will ask me again about those letters R I P. And as darkness settles, and the lights begin to flicker and gain strength, she will tell me, It’s beautiful.
It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world … which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
It is October. Blog posts should come easily right now. Beauty upon beauty spins gently from the maple trees. The world is polished to a coppery shine. Yet I have felt anxious. Tongue-tied.
Virginia Woolf was right about the beauty that is particular to October days. Yes, there is laughter (children diving into piles of leaves, Jonathan and I planting daffodil bulbs together), but there is anguish, too.
For weeks now I have been trying to understand why the beauty of October makes me sad. Has it always been this way? Is it more pronounced this year?
Last spring, I wrote about the beauty of the golden hour. Here at Maplehurst, the whole month of October is golden. There is the glow of all these maple trees, but it is more than that. The light itself has changed. It is rich and thick, like caramel sauce. Or melted butter. Now, even the blue sky has a golden tint.
What is the golden hour? What is this golden, October light?
It is good news from a far country (Proverbs 25:25).
But that country is not yet our possession. It remains just out of reach. During October, it draws near, but it will not stay for long. I never can forget that all these trees will soon be bare.
Perhaps one way we follow in the footsteps of a wounded redeemer is when we do not look away. When we refuse the numbness and distraction of our cellphone or our television show or whatever it is that is so much less beautiful and so much easier to behold.
It isn’t easy to live our lives against the backdrop of rich, ringing gold. The rift between October’s beautiful song and our own tempers and headaches and worries is too great. It would be easier not to look. Not to see.
In October, I understand that I live most of my days with a veil over my eyes.
Will we ever be bold enough to lift our heads towards an October sky and “with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory?” (2 Cor 3:18).
The cost is anguish, but the prize is laughter.
“you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls”
We have arrived at those muddy, brown days between winter and spring. When I cross the yard to the chicken coop, it feels as if I am walking on a sponge. We have had a few warmer days and a few sunnier days, but it is not yet clear to me if the damage of this winter can be undone.
Somehow I find it harder to believe in spring the closer it comes.
My daughter is learning about the Holocaust in school. Every afternoon she shows me some newly acquired fact, as if she half believes that this time, this time, I will contradict her teacher. I will say, No, no, it wasn’t as bad as that. Instead, I only ever say yes. Yes, it’s true.
Here is what she does not say: How do you go on living in a world where such things have happened? Still happen?
Here is what I do not say: I don’t know.
As a writer, I pick up the pieces. Even the ugly, broken pieces. I arrange them and rearrange them, and I search for hidden meaning. I find patterns, and they always say the same thing. They say, Look! Here is something beautiful. Here is good news.
Except that recently, I can’t seem to find the pattern. The broken pieces remain only broken pieces.
They are so many. They are so sharp.
Because it is Lent, we begin each Sunday service with The Decalogue rather than a hymn. We hear the list of God’s ten commands, and they are like stones that form a wall that enclose a garden.
Gardens grow best within the shelter of a wall, but we have torn down the wall with our own hands.
Perhaps we must first listen to the bad news if we hope ever to hear the good.
Perhaps it is sorrow for all the broken pieces and all the tumbled stones that gives us courage to stand up. To rise up, leave the sackcloth and ashes, and go searching for our new name.
Autumn is announced by the seedling trees. The baby trees. They are the first to abandon their green in favor of orange or red or yellow.
Driving these country roads, they are like lit matches. Small, flickering flames against the general greens and faded browns of early autumn.
They are children embracing the arrival of something new. They wear their faith like Joseph’s multi-colored coat, and we cannot look away. Soon, even the staid elders will shake off their summer sleep.
Until they blaze.
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I observed the brilliant, baby trees, and I immediately thought of Jesus’s words. I imagined I could write out the connection. That I could find some moral in what I had seen.
But trees are living things. They are not convenient object lessons.
Maybe they could be parables. Easy to decode but almost impossible to comprehend. Truth so tall and deep, it avoids our grasp, seeking instead the deep well of our hearts.
I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world. (Matthew 13:34)
Yesterday, I saw a strange sight. Walking to shut up the chickens for the night, I saw a line of geese heading southeast. They were black silhouettes against the slate gray backdrop of the sky.
I stood perfectly still watching them, captured by some mystery that wasn’t immediately apparent. Then it came to me in two parts.
First, the geese traveled in a single diagonal line, but there was only emptiness where the other half of the V should have been. Was this a picture of loss and grief? Or only the notice of job vacancies in the sky?
Second, they were quiet. I could hear nothing. No flap of wings, no honking calls.
Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)
I read my Bible, and I watch the trees. I stop to consider the birds. I am learning to collect hidden things. To store them up for the winter day of my need.
And on that day I will know exactly what it means to be a young tree wearing a blaze of color.
I will understand just how much depends upon chasing the far horizon in complete silence.