The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.
The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.
Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.
I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.
When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.
The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.
It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.
It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.
When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.
I became depressed.
I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.
When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.
It meant that I knew happiness again.
It meant that I knew sadness again.
Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.
This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.
Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.
When I turned 29, I ate coconut cupcakes.
They were baked by my mother, in my kitchen, with my daughter. They were brought to my maternity ward hospital room by my pastor and his wife. That day I ate coconut cupcakes and introduced you to my dearest friends.
Tomorrow, June 23, you and I will celebrate.
I made those same coconut cupcakes this week. I shared them with neighbors and sneaked more than a few myself after your bedtime, but, tomorrow, we won’t eat coconut cupcakes. We will share a dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free birthday cake with Lego-shaped candles.
In the hospital, the day you were born, the nurse looked at the date on my admission bracelet and said, “Here is a son who will never forget his mother’s birthday.”
Tomorrow, I will probably remind you two or three times that it is also my birthday. But you are seven, and I do not mind all that much. Because you are the best birthday gift I have ever been given.
There is a story behind those words. A story to which I return every year on this day.
It is a story first of all about longing. I wanted a baby. I wanted a sibling for our daughter, but my body refused to cooperate. I had thought after our first experience, after the diagnosis and the referral to a good specialist, that the second time would be easy. We understood the problem, we would not wait to pursue the solution.
It was not easy.
It was so much harder. Because the drugs in which I had placed my faith did not work, it was also more hopeless.
Today, I am grateful for every month (months turning over into years) that I waited for you. Because of those months, the words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Now when I imagine, like all the parents in this world, every horrible thing that might happen, I am not afraid. I know that God can meet us in the pain and there is nothing else like that encounter.
But our hearts are not so easily untangled from fear. After the miracle of your conception, fears I didn’t even know I had twisted my thoughts. I felt as if I owed so much to God, and I became convinced there would be some price to pay. I became convinced there was something wrong with you.
Until that day. That day, six months along, when a stranger placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. That day a river was unleashed and when I came up for air the fear was gone. I heard God’s own voice whisper: “This boy is a gift. A good and perfect gift. There is no price to pay.”
You’d think I would have known. Your due date was close enough to my own birthday. Why didn’t I guess?
Somehow, I never dreamed I would meet you for the first time on my birthday. God’s stories are so much better than the ones we imagine for ourselves.
Yes, you were born on my birthday. You were a good and perfect gift, given the day I turned 29.
Since that day, I have had reason to be afraid. So have you. I have given you food with my own hand and seen the fear in your eyes as your throat begins to swell. I have called 911 on your behalf too many times to count. I have seen how tiny you seem lying there on an emergency-room bed.
And yet I have never questioned those whispered words.
There is nothing wrong with you. Not really. You are, indeed, perfectly made. The worst thing can happen, but the Love who made you will take care of you. I pray always that you will be healed, but I know my prayers have been answered before I ever prayed them.
We have journeyed from coconut cupcakes to blue marshmallow cakes to gluten-free bakery cakes with Lego-shaped candles, and now I know these three things:
God is good.
There is no need to be afraid.
And this: our lives are stories, and these stories are written by Love.
Today is the day for a miracle …
Today the calendar says spring, but when has the calendar ever told us anything true?
As I write, darkness has dropped, the wind is howling, and the hanging porch lights are twisting like terrified animals on their chains.
The sound of this wild March wind does not make me feel cozy. It sounds too much like someone in pain.
Today is the day for a miracle …
I keep telling myself spring is already here. I’ve known for days that it was time to plant. Peas, lettuce, radishes, beets, spinach, swiss chard … so much needs to be in the ground.
But who has faith for gardening in the midst of snow flurries and sleet?
Today is the day for a miracle …
The apple trees we ordered months ago have arrived. They look like apple sticks. The children do not believe me when I tell them we’ll bake pies. I’m not sure I believe myself.
But I’ve seen more winters than my children, and I do know this: the day when daffodils emerge is not the day for hope. The day when seedlings show the bright green of new life is not the day for faith. That day came and went.
This is the day for a miracle. This day. The dark day. The cold day. The day when all you can see is mud and broken things, like so many toys strewn across the backyard.
Easter Sunday is not the day for miracles. It is the day for praise.
Every miracle we ever needed, every miracle we ever wanted begins on Good Friday.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
*Today I am listening to this song by Hans Kraenzlin
I want my children to know that God’s love is as real as the cupcakes and green tea we shared on Monday afternoon. It’s as real as this house that shelters us from cold and frames our daily view of the sunset.
But this is actually a hard thing to believe, and my daughter goes straight for the crack in my story: what about the kids who have no cupcakes? What about the student my health teacher just told us about? The one with no money for a visit to the dentist? The one who is about to lose his house because his parents ran out of money to pay the owner?
And I can hear the real question whispering beneath our conversation: isn’t it a terrible thing to suppose God loves one child with a gift of cupcakes while another one is left to starve?
I’ve been listening to this firstborn of mine for years, and one word that always comes to mind is wisdom.
She reminds me that wisdom doesn’t necessarily know the answer, but she does ask good questions.
That is a good question, I tell her. I don’t know the answer.
All I really know are the stories that make up my own life. While I don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces (in other words, a God who makes my life easier and more comfortable with special little favors), I do know that God loves in big ways and small.
Maybe God is loving you right now with cupcakes, I tell her. Maybe he is loving that other child with a bowl of rice from an aid worker.
One time, I tell her, God loved me with a sofa.
It was just over a year ago, and I had this farmhouse dream in mind. It was a dream about caring for an old house and a bit of land and welcoming lots of people around our table. In my mind, it looked like an antique sofa. The kind with a carved wood frame and pretty little legs. I don’t know why the dream looked that way to me, but it did.
But I was very sick that last winter in Florida. I spent every day in bed trying to breathe, trying to avoid the wicked, golden tree pollen wafting through the air.
Until the day, dear firstborn, when I couldn’t take your cabin-fever complaints, your boredom made manifest in bickering. I grabbed you and my inhaler and took off for some thrift-store therapy. I don’t think I ever felt so far away from my dream as I did then – struggling to breathe and desperate for escape. From pollen, from warm winters, from bickering children, from all of it.
We walked into the thrift store – headed for the twenty-five cent children’s books – and I saw it. My sofa. My farmhouse sofa.
But, we don’t have room for another couch, you said. You’re right, I said. We don’t have room in our Florida house, but I don’t think we’ll always be here. Dear God, tell me I won’t always be here. Desperate for breath. Dying to escape.
I bought that sofa. It sat in our Florida garage for a few weeks until I had enough faith to write the check. That’s when I googled upholsterers.
I chose the one with the coupon and the free in-person estimate. He loaded my sofa into his white van, and I went back to my sickbed. Not even a sofa in the garage to remind me of my dream.
Months went by, and there was no reason to think we’d be leaving Florida anytime soon. The sofa wasn’t ready when he said. Weeks went by, and I emailed. Soon! he wrote back. More weeks went by, and I emailed again. Very soon! he wrote.
I tried not to think about my farmhouse (but all I could think was where is it? And when will we go there?). I tried not to think about my sofa (but all I could think was where is it? And did I pick the right fabric?).
June 23. My birthday. 5 pm and there was a phone call. Your sofa is ready, and I’m in your neighborhood. Can I bring it by?
You and I, we don’t believe in the God of Parking Spaces. You and I, we can’t ever forget that starving child (which is as it should be).
But I know my own story, and I know God gave me a sofa for my thirty-fifth birthday.
Today, I am sitting at my desk in an old, old farmhouse. I can see my sofa from where I sit.
It was made for this house.
Which is as inconsequential as a parking space. And as miraculous as anything I know.
A birthday letter for one’s child should be a marker of all that a mother knows. For instance, on the day you turned three you had a scratch on your cheek and a bruise on your forehead. Your legs and arms were somehow both surprisingly long and impossibly tiny. You loved your balloon. You whined for more chocolate cake. You pronounced it so carefully: “choc-oh-lut.”
But you are almost entirely unknown. This doesn’t bother me or frighten me. At least once a day your father or I will laugh at you and say, “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
Your blonde hair sets you apart in our family. But it is more than appearance. Perhaps it is comparison. With two older siblings whose personalitites and interests have seemed long settled, you are less familiar. We are still getting acquainted. You are still getting acquainted with the world.
Or, perhaps it is a holdover. You were unknown for nine months before your birth. Boy or girl? We chose not to know. You were the little stranger born into the thoroughly familiar, the utterly known: our own bed, in our own apartment, in a city that felt like home.
There has been only one moment when I saw more. One moment when I seemed to glimpse the you that is still buried in your bones.
You were six months old. It was late at night. Your cough was so like a barking seal that we had no need to google symptoms. We could name it. By naming it we felt we had tamed it.
We had done no such thing. In the space between those known, nameable coughs your breath became jagged. Desperate. Each breath seemed just on the verge of not coming at all.
Your father spoke with the nurse on call, and I held you on the floor of the bathroom, your face hardly visible through the steam. I prayed for you.
So often prayer is just a desperate word or two. It hardly seems capable of traveling whatever distance lies between my mouth and God’s ear. But sometimes prayer takes over and I know that it does not come from me at all. It is more like a river, and I’ve just fallen in.
Sitting there, holding you, I was in that river and I saw something. It was as if that rushing river of prayer drew back the veil between known and unknown, seen and unseen. I saw You, the you that is never just a baby or a three-year-old, but the You that is every age, and I recognized how far away from me you would travel. I could see you bringing light into dark places where I would never go. It seemed to me, as I prayed, that there was a great struggle taking place in this ordinary, steamy bathroom.
Later, I recognized that this river of prayer was not my communication with God. It wasn’t my puny request for healing. A simple question to be answered “yes” or “no.” The prayer was God’s own roaring response to the darkness, the utter evil, that would end your life before you could do all that you were made to do. Or, more importantly, before you could become who you were made to be.
God wouldn’t allow it. Yes, the darkness was there with us, grasping at you as you grasped for breath, but God was shoving it aside. Saving you because we needed you. A “we” that includes so many more than just your father and I.
I don’t know exactly who you are or how far you will go. I do know your life will be beautiful, more beautiful even than these first three years. Your life will matter, more than it already has to your family. And I know you are one step closer today to the promise I glimpsed in that prayer.
You are three.
Unless this is your first visit to my blog, you know that I’ve been in waiting mode almost since the day, two years ago, when we arrived in Florida. One of the very first posts I wrote was called On Waiting.
Two years ago, I didn’t know what I was waiting for. And, sometimes, waiting is like that. It is a heavy weight. An ache. A question: what now?
But God was present in the waiting. Every day there was water seeping from desert rocks. Food dropped, fully-prepared, on the desert floor.
Occasionally, I even spotted the cloud by day and the fire by night. Spring wildfire season in Florida meant that once we followed a narrow column of smoke the whole twenty-minute drive from our church to our house. Another evening, we followed a full moon made blood-red by reflected fire. That fiery moon hovered in the center of our ash-covered windshield for the long, long drive from a downtown theater to our home. Whoever said that metaphors aren’t as solidly real as flesh, blood, and bread? Those old Bible stories are still alive, you know.
God has been water and bread, fire and cloud for us. And, slowly, so slowly, he filled in the emptiness of waiting with vision. I still waited, but I could see something of what it was that I waited for. This waiting was less desperate but more impatient.
Even hopeful, expectant waiting is difficult. I have wearied of the waiting. I wearied of it long before I knew how heavy it would become.
This winter I got sick. Florida’s pollen season came early and fiercely, and my lungs failed. I spent weeks lying still beside my bedroom air-purifier focusing on each breath. On the worst day, the day that found me back on the doctor’s examining table desperate for new asthma drugs, I found out that I was pregnant. Such surprising, beautiful news, but it was hard to hold on to my belief in an unseen baby while my body tumbled down into an even darker hole. Now nausea and exhaustion kept me pressed into my pillow more tightly than even the asthma.
And I waited. For hope. For healing. For breath.
I waited for God to show up, and I expected fireworks. I imagined an end to my waiting something like a switch clicking from dark to light. When will he come, I wondered. Tomorrow? The next day? How long, Lord, how long?
This morning I sat in the lovely light of a college chapel for a presentation on lament. Lament like that of Psalm 13: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
I’m in Michigan for a writer’s conference, and it feels strange and beautiful to be enjoying again the midwestern spring. Daffodils and tulips. Redbuds and soft, green grass. Unfortunately, the beauty also means that Florida’s pollen has followed me northward. In the busyness of travel I forgot to take my little, pink asthma pill. During my first day at the conference I could never quite escape the pain in my chest and the breathless anxiety that is like a sharp, metallic taste in my mouth. I remembered the pill this second day, and I could enjoy, a little more easily, the cool, wet wind and the rainy sidewalks plastered with petals.
One of the presenters in this session on lament, a songwriter, asked his audience of writers to sing. And, so, I found myself breathing out these words, my own tune-less voice supported by all the voices around me: “The One who gives me breath. He is my Shepherd. I shall never be in want. I shall never be in want.”
The One who gives me breath.
He is my Shepherd.
While I waited for fireworks, for the coming of God like thunder and lightning, my Shepherd slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought me from a sickbed to a chapel filled with the light of a midwestern spring. He did this so that I could know: He is the one who gives me breath. I shall never be in want.
Perhaps my waiting isn’t over, but I know that it is ending. One seed planted in darkness and emptiness is now a fully-formed child, prodding me from within. And I believe that this new life is not the only seed that God has planted in these waiting years.
The true end of my waiting will be, I think, like the coming of spring itself. Subtle. Slow. Until I find myself singing a God-given song and wonder, “When did this happen? How did I get here?”
“How long, Lord? … How long will you hide your face from me? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.”