This year, the women’s ministry at my Pennsylvania church published an Advent devotional with written reflections from twenty-nine of our parish women. I was honored to write a reflection for the first Sunday of Advent, and I am so glad to be able to share it here, too.
The following piece appears in Behold, God’s Promises, an Advent devotional from the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA. You can download the entire devotional for free here.
Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent are from the Daily Office (Year 1) in the Book of Common Prayer: Psalms 146, 147, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matt. 25:1-13
Peter told us the scoffers would come, but I never imagined they would speak with the voices of my own children.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the six of us gather at the dining room table where our Advent wreath lies ready for us.
My younger son grips the candle snuffer and asks, “Why do we do this every year?”
“To remember Jesus came and will come back again,” I tell him.
“What’s taking so long?!” he says.
His older brother and older sister chime in, “It’s been thousands of years!” Their baby sister echoes, “Thousands!”
My children, like those scoffers Peter warned against, believe “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Day follows day like a soothing lullaby until we, like virgins waiting with our lamps, drift complacently to sleep.
Even my oldest child cannot remember a day beyond twelve years ago, and yet how confident they are life will go on always the same.
I look at their faces and remember well those years when there were no children in my home. I cried for children and prayed for children and witnessed four times the power of God to change everything. Like Mary before me, I sing, “… the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).
In a moment the world is changed utterly.
In a moment our ordinary is shattered by joy.
If a voice in our culture, or our home, or even our own heart says, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” do not listen and despair. With every turning of this planet, with every setting of the sun, with every swish of the calendar page, we are nearer.
This Advent season we are nearer.
Prayer: Dear Father, wake us for this Advent journey. You, our bridegroom, have been a long time in coming, and we do grow weary. Remind us of your nearness and impress on our hearts the reality of your return. Make us ready to welcome you. Amen.
There are days that plod, one after the other, days of sameness and stasis.
Summer days are often like that. Sometimes it is a hard thing, and sometimes it is a gift. Our recent vacation days in the Adirondacks were a gift, but remembering them now is like remembering one long day, so slow and similar were they.
Then there are days when you can feel the planet tilting and swirling beneath you. These are days when change rushes toward you like the wind, and you are flung toward new horizons as if shot from a circus cannon.
All four of my children went to school on Monday.
It was only four years ago that we came to Maplehurst. Only four years ago that my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward third grade, her first-grade brother trailing behind. My little boy stayed home for games of Candy Land, and our baby girl would be born in only a week.
Four years sounds like nothing at all, but it is nearly an eternity in the life of a child. This week, my firstborn walked all the way down our long driveway toward seventh grade, her fifth and second-grade brothers trailing behind.
And Elsa Spring started preschool.
Our little sorrows seem as nothing, especially when they are sorrows of abundance. How silly is it to cry for our lost babies when our arms are filled with growing children?
I too would laugh, I too would call this folly, except that I have seen how easy it is for me to discount every form of grief. Like so many, I privilege “closure” and “recovery.” Like a foolish accountant, I weigh the world’s sorrows on a scale. The loss of a child weighs the most. The loss of a spouse a little less, the loss of a sibling or a favorite aunt still less. The ordinary grief a mother feels watching her children grow and leave her behind counts not at all.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?
We grieve the baby we wanted but could never have, the baby who died too soon, the baby who lived but grew up to leave us.
We grieve, we grieve, we grieve.
In Housekeeping, her perfect poem of a novel, Marilynne Robinson writes: “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return.”
If we pretend that this life gives enough comfort and consolation to erase our griefs is it because we fear we can hope for nothing better?
If we assume that what is lost is lost forever, then why not take what little comfort we can, wherever we can?
But if we persist in the wild belief that the world will be made new and whole, that everything lost will be found again, then we must go on grieving.
To turn our back on sorrow is to turn our back on hope.
These are the things I tell myself, seven months after Shawn’s death. Twenty years after Michelle’s death. Twenty-four years after Sissie’s death. And four years after I birthed a baby girl who would not long remain a baby.
Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost.
Time is sweet grace because it propels us, ready or not, like it or not, toward a hoped-for day. A day when all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.
On that day, the promise inherent in our precious memories will be fulfilled. The half-forgotten and the dimly-recalled will take on flesh, and greet us by name, and together we will go home.
On Saturday morning, Jonathan and I woke up in the dark.
I took my time peeling back the covers. I debated whether or not to change out of my pajamas. Eventually, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe and tiptoed down the stairs. Outside, I stepped into my tall, rubber gardening boots and wondered if Jonathan was inside warming his hands by the coffee maker or outside hiding eggs.
A pile of garbage bags, bright white beneath the moon, lay where they’d been tossed up the cellar steps. That was my answer.
I heaved up one of the bulging bags and began tucking cold, plastic eggs into every extra-tall tuft of grass.
The moon was bright and full, drifting behind the top of a spruce tree.
Around 6:30, I heard a whisper on the dark, “I feel like I’ve stepped into a book.”
One of our guests for the weekend, an old friend from Chicago who finished reading Roots and Sky on the flight into Philadelphia, was up and out, eager to help hide eggs.
By the time we finished, my back ached, but I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. My fingers were stiff with cold, but the air was still and the just-rising sun promised a swift warmup. When our friend left for a jog, Jonathan and I slipped back into the kitchen for coffee, the giant pink magnolia fluttering its butterfly wings behind our backs.
“I think this will be the prettiest day we’ve ever had for the egg hunt,” I told him.
It was. The most peaceful, too.
The staggered start times for the egg hunt helped. From his perch on our stepladder, Jonathan made sure the younger hunters had found their first egg before he cried “ready, set, go” for the next group holding easter baskets and paper bags in excited hands.
Some kids found too many eggs, some found maybe not quite enough. One neighbor brought her pet bunny on a leash. Another neighbor wore full Easter Bunny costume and posed for pictures with wide-eyed kids.
I think it was the best egg hunt yet.
Now Easter has come and gone, and the world outside my window is responding with greener grass and tulip tops. The climbing rose over the vegetable garden arbor is suddenly furred with tiny leaves.
I should feel hopeful. I should rejoice. The tomb that held Jesus is empty.
But all our other tombs are not.
By Easter morning, the golden perfection of the previous day had vanished. The sky was low and gray, and a sharp, cold breeze had penetrated the kitchen. We didn’t light a fire in the woodstove, but we thought about it.
I assumed Easter would be the climax. After months of heartache, we gathered with our friends and neighbors on a perfect spring morning. But instead, Easter itself felt anticlimactic, as if the only thing to do now was wait.
Resurrection is a great promise for tomorrow, but what about today?
I have thought about that question all week.
I thought about it while I planted out violas and alyssum in the flower garden. I started those seeds under grow lights in the basement about a month ago.
I thought about it while I sat in a chair beneath the magnolia tree. In that spot, the chickens are noisy, the cat I am allergic to insists on jumping into my lap, but the air smells like honey.
I thought about it while I spread fresh wood chips on the paths between the beds in the vegetable garden. I even thought about it when Elsa brought me a handful of daffodils. She’d picked them, “for me” she said, from beneath the baby apple trees. The stems were too short for a vase, so I tucked them into my tiniest drinking glass.
One afternoon, I pulled up a recipe for dinner on pinterest, but another of my pins caught my eye. It was a graphic my sister Kelli made for me with one of her photographs and words from an old blog post. It said:
“We are not waiting for resurrection. We are living it.”
That is the truth I’ve been searching for all week. That is the truth I’ve been living all week.
The empty tomb isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. It is new life for me, today. It is hope for this world, today.
Shawn’s death isn’t the end. Not for him. Not for those he left behind. We ache. We grieve. But already we have seen beautiful things begin to grow in the emptiness.
Spring is a perpetual season. Its eternal roots lie within the very first Easter, like the few golden daffodils I tucked into our scarred, wooden cross. Jesus was a seed, planted in death and sprouted in resurrection, and that seed has been growing ever since. Because of Jesus, the Christ, who was and is and is to come, we are living a spring with no end. – Roots and Sky
All of the photos in this post were taken by my sister, Kelli Campbell, April, two years ago.
It is difficult to know where to begin. It feels as if, together with my family, I have lived whole lifetimes since I last wrote in this space.
We prayed for rescue, but Shawn did not need to be rescued.
Perhaps those prayers were for ourselves.
So many of you prayed with us. So many of you wrote words of love and encouragement. You delivered meals, not only here in Oahu but to my husband in Pennsylvania and to my youngest sister’s husband in Washington. You sent gifts (even a big cardboard box packed full of tissues!). Quite a few of you left your own families and flew hours to be here with us.
You showed up. And through you, God drew near.
I can’t tell the whole story yet. We are still living it. Also, so much of that story isn’t mine to share. And yet I can say this: when you observe suffering from the outside all you can see is the suffering. Despair can feel like the only option.
Having sat, for two weeks, on the inside, I want you to know that despair doesn’t feel like an option. Peace is too real. Hope is too bright. God, the Ancient of Days, has drawn close.
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8
Shawn Matthew Campbell’s death on Thursday, January 14 came as a shock to all of us who knew him and loved him. But what happened that dark night did not shock God. We have seen in a hundred ways how he was preparing us for this though we never guessed what was coming.
In December, I was asked by a writing colleague to contribute a series of three devotionals for a website called The High Calling. Over Christmas, I regretted saying yes to that request. I resented the time I needed to give to writing when all I wanted was to work a little longer with my father on our giant Christmas jigsaw puzzle or make one more batch of dairy-free Christmas cookies with my son.
I chose three passages of Scripture seemingly at random and wrote up three brief devotionals. A week or so later, I responded to my editor’s request for headlines and offered a few suggestions.
And I forgot about it.
A day or so after my arrival in Oahu, my father mentioned that he had heard from an old friend. Apparently, this friend had read something online and found it meaningful. Looking up the name of the writer he discovered me and my connection with his friend, my Dad. Knowing what we were all experiencing, he sent an email wondering if we had seen the piece online.
I had not seen it.
I had not known that my three devotionals, meant to be read over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, had been published on Thursday, January 14.
I did not know that the headline I had suggested had been accepted.
I did not know that the Scriptures I had pulled from my Bible without any sense of direction would be the verses we would cling to. The same verses we would print on the bulletin for Shawn’s memorial service at his local church.
The final headline for those devotionals reads: Why Today Is So Good.
When I found out, I wept. I cried, because it couldn’t be true. I didn’t want it to be true, but I couldn’t deny that it was true. Hadn’t God given me the words before I ever knew what they meant?
We believe it. We don’t understand it. We are still rocked by loss and grief, but we see God’s goodness everywhere.
God is still good.
Some of you will be reading this with my first book nearby. Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons releases today, Tuesday, February 2.
For months, friends have told me I should plan something special for this day. They said I should find some way to mark the occasion. Something I would always remember.
I thought their advice was good, but I never did make those plans. I am not sure why.
But now I see that God always knew what I would be doing on Tuesday, February 2, 2016. He knew I would be on a red-eye flight from Honolulu to Seattle and from Seattle to Philadelphia. He knew I would lose most of the day in a blur of time zones and jet lag.
He always knew.
And though this is not the plan I would have made, I do not resent it. In a way, I am relieved that there will be no party or celebratory drink. There will probably not even be a way for me to know if you are reading this post or sharing it or leaving a comment.
I will spend most of the day in the air, and I will think of Shawn. Of how kind he was. Of how much he loved to fly.
Of how glad I am to have called him brother.
“I kneel in the dirt in a cathedral of maple trees. My trowel is almost useless in the bony soil, but I persist. While Lillian holds her baby sister on the porch, I bury 250 bulbs. Their names are prayers: daffodil, tulip, crocus, and scilla. They are papery. They are dusty. Like little more than a bag of onions.
But I am a believer. I know they are like the beautiful souls of those who’ve gone before. I will see them resurrected in the spring.”
– Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons
photo by Kelli Campbell
“Whether we speak of poems or paintings or places, all art acknowledges an absence and dreams of something other, something more. Art is the material form of hope.”
– Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky
I did not really know what those words meant when I wrote them.
Today, my family is confronted by a terrible grief and a great absence. My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, is missing at sea. He is a Marine and a pilot, and his aircraft was lost off the coast of Hawaii last Thursday night.
His four young children are waiting for their Daddy to come home. Soon, I will travel to Hawaii to be with them.
I had other words, other stories, planned for these last days before my book is released into the world. Instead, you will most likely find only silence in this online space. I will share any updates on my facebook page and instagram account.
It is likely that many of you will receive my book and begin reading it before I return home to Maplehurst. The only words I would add to the words already written within those pages are these:
The book I wrote is not diminished by this sorrow. It is more true than I knew, and it has become, for me, an anchor outside this grief.
It is, quite literally, the material form of my hope.
If I once thought it was my gift to God then it is a gift he has given back to me. I can hold hope in my hands, even if I fail to see it in these circumstances.
Thank you for your prayers. I speak for so many in my family when I say,
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning: great is your faithfuless.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'”
– Lamentations 3: 19-24
Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.