You were a child, and they wanted only the best for you. So they told you your heart was deceitful. They told you that every desire was only a misplaced desire for Him.
They spoke the (partial) truth in love, and you took their words to heart. Those words kept you safe. They kept you on a narrow way, and you will always be grateful for that.
But Jesus never promised safety; He promised abundance. The abundant life is a wide-awake life, and it is anything but safe.
Infertility was unexpected. It was a hammer blow to your heart, and when your heart cracked open something precious and dangerous slipped out.
First one and then one more. And just when you thought that was all, convinced you’d closed the box up tight, even more would come leaking out. We were made to be deep water, but you were terrified when you first glimpsed the depths of your desiring self.
You wanted, and you wanted fiercely. You wanted a baby of your own. And when that miracle baby was born you asked for more.
There are three things that are never satisfied, / four that never say, ‘Enough!’: / the grave, the barren womb, / land, which is never satisfied with water, / and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’ (Proverbs 30:16).
Babies were only the beginning. You wanted to earn that PhD. You wanted to live in the big city. You wanted to read poetry on green Irish cliffs.
You wanted to live a life that mattered. You wanted to create. You wanted to be loved.
Fiery desire had been unleashed. You held your hands to the flames, and you were consumed.
God gave you the babies. God gave you the degree. God gave you poetry in Ireland, and God gave you love.
But God wanted to give you more. So He took you to the wilderness.
You cried every day for two years, Lord I want to go home. Lord I have no home. Lord I want to go home. Please, oh please, take me home.
When God led you through the desert to the farmhouse on the hill, you heard again the message given by those well-meaning Christians all those years ago.
It is true that all desire is misleading.
Desire isn’t necessarily wrong (though it might be). It isn’t necessarily sinful (though it might be). Desire is misleading because, if God-given, it leads you somewhere unexpected.
The babies bring joy, but they grow so quickly and every day they slip just a little further from your arms. The PhD sharpened you, but it didn’t provide the career you imagined. The house is a dream-come-true, the garden is your canvas, but the work is relentless and you do not have what it takes.
Those things do not satisfy completely but wanting them was never wrong. Those dreams were planted in you by God himself and in reaching for them you found something better – someone better – than any dream-come-true.
Sitting in the deep recess of the old parlor window, you notice the snow beginning to dust your hilltop. Stepping outside, snowflakes tap-dancing on your cheeks, you feel a great longing well up in your heart.
This is a familiar feeling. For years, you could see some clear thing whenever you felt it. A child. Or an accomplishment. Or a garden of your own. But you have come home and what is there left to want? What is the object of this longing and where will it lead?
Perhaps the snowflakes blur your vision just enough to help you see. Because it is here – in the snow on the hilltop – that you finally glimpse the truth. Yes, the farmhouse on the hill is a gift, God-given, but it is only the shadow of your true home.
Now you understand that God is, that he has always been, leading you home to himself.
I’ve mentioned this book before. I’m keeping it close this Advent season.
I find it incredible how an old, old form can open my eyes to everything New.
Here is a poem for this, the second Monday of Advent.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought with-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
– Malcolm Guite, from Sounding the Seasons
A hymn for this, the first Thursday.
“See the Lord of earth and skies; / Humbled to the dust … .”
GLORY be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend!
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears!
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King.
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man;
Dwelling in an earthly clod,
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.
We, the sons of men, rejoice,
The Prince of peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.
– by Charles Wesley
Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.
Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert
A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).
This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.
This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.
How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton
Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.
We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.
Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.
What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.
God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children
I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.
The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.
It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..
This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.
This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.
It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.
To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman
“Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that
faith may take new forms.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
I remember the day I stopped believing.
I see that day now for what it was: a doorway. Nothing would ever be the same for me having passed that threshold.
I thank God every day for leading me to that place. I thank God every day for giving me the courage to do what I had never yet done. For the first time, I doubted him.
I am not a risk-taker. I am a play-it-safe, keep-within-the-lines, follow-the-rules kind of girl. Growing up, they told me God is Love, and I believed them. And then I followed the rules.
Church on Sunday.
Read your Bible daily.
Rules which added up in my mind to this: you’ve been bought for a price so now live like you can make it up to him.
But, of course, we can never do that.
Which is why he never asked us to.
I stood in church one Sunday and sang some song about God’s love. I was in pain, I saw no evidence that God had noticed, so I stopped singing the song. I no longer believed in a God equals Love. I no longer believed that this Love saw me.
Here is the thing about unbelief: it is like a fire. It burns away the truth, yes, but it also burns away the lies.
What is left is a heart like a dead, blackened field.
In other words, what is left is the perfect ground for new life.
I do not want to idolize unbelief, no more than I would want to idolize certainty. All I want is to say: Do not be afraid.
On the days when you believe, the days when God is near, do not be afraid. Do not imagine it is up to you to keep the feeling going, like a bicycle that might disappear the moment you become too exhausted to keep peddling.
And on the days when you cannot summon belief, on the days when God is a void, do not be afraid. These days are dark, they may be painful, but they, too, can be a gift.
Which came first, my love for God or his love for me? Before I stepped through the door of this day, I’m not sure I could have answered the question. My view of divine love was a mixed-up mess of lessons I’d been taught, songs I had sung, parents who loved well, and my own lonely efforts to be a good person.
Maybe that has been the greatest gift of unbelief. Embracing it, I let go of everything I thought made me lovable.
And then Love found me.
“We love because he first loved us.”
(I John 4:19)
Two years ago, I wrote a few words for my son. They added up to something that wasn’t quite a story. I think they were a prayer. Also, a confession.
I meant them for all of my children, but it was this boy who drew them out of me.
The love we have for others – but especially for the weaker ones, like our children – is often laced with fear. That is our lot in this world: to love and to know that loving makes us vulnerable. Vulnerable to loss. To pain. To worry.
Some of our loves are laced with more fear than others. My love for this boy is like that.
However, in loving him, I have seen something strange but beautiful, something hard but good: the worst moments are the ones that wash my love clean of all the fear.
Somehow it takes having our worst fears realized, to know that our worst fears are not worth fearing. Because, ultimately, we are safe. We are loved. We are held.
Recently, my son began a new school year at a new school. He was nervous. I was nervous for him. Despite my prayers, despite my hopes, his first day went about as badly as a first day could go. Possibly, it was even worse than that. At the end of this terrible, no-good, very bad day, I remembered what I had shared two years ago. And I knew this: our worst days may be the answers to our best prayers.
(the following is edited from the archives and was originally titled The Only Thing I Pray My Children Grow Up to Know)
The second-born, my oldest boy, starts kindergarten in just a few weeks. Not only that, but he will ride the bus (which is, possibly, a bigger deal for both of us even than kindergarten itself).
I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the days are long but the years are short. These summer days drag (how to fill the time between dinner and bed?), but I will wake up tomorrow and watch my son graduate from high school. I know this, and it has prompted me to wonder: what do I want this boy to grow up to do? To know? To be?
Like most parents in these enlightened days, I say, “I only want him to be happy. Whatever makes him happy. If that means becoming a doctor, great. If it’s an auto mechanic, fine by me.” Unlike most parents, I suspect, I really do mean it.
I’ve spent enough time around highly-educated Ivy-leaguers to know that the things which spell success in our culture (straight A’s! a University of Chicago degree!) are not necessarily markers of either success or happiness.
Not only that, but I know that there is some kind of Murphy’s law of parenting: whatever I plan for my child, the opposite will happen. My father gave me only this bit of advice as I prepared for college: “Study anything you want, but be practical. Don’t major in English or History.” I was never a rebellious child, but Murphy’s law kicked in and, by the end of college, I was graduating with a double major in English and History.
What then do I want for my boy? For his big sister? His little brother?
Only this: to know deep down in their heart of hearts God loves them. Truly, that is all.
Unfortunately, there is such a big chasm between head knowledge and heart knowledge, between assenting to an idea or concept and feeling the truth of it deep inside. I tell them over and over: you are loved. By me. By others. But, most importantly, you are loved by the Love who created everything beautiful and that Love is vaster and more intimate than you may ever know.
I heard that too as a child. I sang these words in so many Sunday school classes: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But I didn’t know. I nodded my head and agreed, but I didn’t really know.
Praying that my children know God’s love is sometimes difficult. It is as if I am praying that they suffer. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is some other way in which this knowledge can travel from head to heart, but the enormity of God’s personal love was only revealed to me in some very dark places.
Looked at another way, I am not praying they suffer. I am praying they be comforted.
And this is what I want for my babies? Yes, this is what I want for them: that, like Hagar, they will one day say, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
This is my prayer:
“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
I’m afraid that it will hurt, but I promise you: it is worth every tear.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42: 5)