I sat in my hairdresser’s chair this morning feeling too worn out for small talk. Summer days at home with four children will do that.
She asked about my trip to Tuscany: “Did you bring home ideas for your writing?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, maybe,” I added.
What did I bring home from this spiritual retreat for writers?
Two bottles of olive oil. A duty-free bottle of lemoncello. Hard candies in pretty little boxes for the kids.
Also, a retreat journal full of prayers, epiphanies, and meaningful quotations from the likes of Henri Nouwen.
Your future depends on how you choose to remember your past. – Henri J.M. Nouwen
How do I remember my time in the Tuscan countryside of Italy? How do I remember those days lived in community, in a garden, around a table, surrounded by beauty?
I remember rest.
Simple rest. A total focus on the here and the now and the people right at my elbow.
The kind of rest I believe is available to those walking the Jesus way.
The kind of rest I rarely, if ever, manage to enter on my ordinary day to day.
What is rest? What is its substance?
It feels like being held. It feels like the absence of fear. It feels like no anxiety for tomorrow and a quiet acceptance of yesterday.
It feels like stillness.
It feels like freedom.
It is a spacious place.
I am a gardener who has never yet found rest in my own garden. Who can rest when mosquitos are biting, weeds are waving, and overgrown cucumbers are beginning to rot on the vine?
Who can rest when children are growing, my cellphone is dinging, and the cucumbers I meant to make into pickles are beginning to rot in the fridge?
I found rest in a garden in Tuscany because that garden wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my responsibility. Someone else made that place, and I had only to enjoy it.
If rest is a place made for us, where is the door?
In Tuscany, rest was a stone bench beneath sheltering leaves, a kind of green grotto within an enormous shrub.
Our word grotto is related to the Greek for hidden place, the same Greek that gave us our word crypt. That should not surprise us. “Blessed are the dead,” we read in Revelation, “they will rest from their labor.” In this life we sometimes glimpse the ultimate rest, but ours is only a glimpse, a momentary vision, for “there remains … a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9).
Man-made grottos, whether green and growing or stony and still, are often markers of gratitude: gratitude for some miraculous encounter or some answered prayer. Grottos shape how we remember the past. They tell us God is near. They say all shall be well. They hint at a reality we have yet to enter.
My own garden has no grotto, but, since returning from Tuscany, I have discovered it is possible to shelter within gratitude, as if leaf by leaf or stone by stone, I can be transported, not leaving my ordinary everyday but somehow sinking, a little more deeply, within it.
When fear or worry invade, I say Thank you for this and thank you for that and I find that the list goes on and on.
Until the list becomes a door.
My children returned to school this week.
Monday morning I took their photograph on the front steps and wondered if anything in creation grows and changes faster than a child. Of course, I know the answer is yes, many things.
The dahlias in my flower garden need only one summer to grow from potato-like tuber to five feet of sunset color. Strange mushrooms beside the wood pile require a scant few hours of darkness. The baby ducks my sisters gave me as a birthday gift in late June now wander the yard with a heavy, side-to-side waddle and consume twice as much food one week as the week before.
Right now, the whole world feels shot through with urgency. Zinnias are on a mission to bloom and dry and drop their dusty seeds. The American political landscape has become so tumultuous I hold my morning paper at arm’s length, nervous about what new controversy may have erupted overnight. A hurricane parked itself on the landscape of my childhood and young adulthood, and if I had had a thousand boats I would not have been able to rescue every person I know by name who was watching floodwaters rise.
I can’t keep up. I can’t keep my grip. Not on the children. Or the issues. Not even on the tomatoes growing in my garden. Too many drop to the ground and rot before I can bring them inside. A few more turn to puddles on my countertop before my husband, pizza-maker extraordinaire, can cook them into sauce. But what is a tomato puddle compared with a one-in-five hundred-year flood?
Who has time for small things and slow things when it feels as if the world is spinning faster than ever before?
A world hurtling from grief to grief needs speed and rescue boats. But I have only the slow work of placing one word upon another.
No boats. Only books.
I am writing another book.
In this story, this imagery, and this message, I feel as if I have tapped into floodwaters, and I am so grateful to the folks at Zondervan for partnering with me to shape these waters into something beautiful and meaningful.
But the protracted and plodding work of writing and publishing has left me feeling as if I’ve stepped out of a fast-moving river in order to bury my head in a backwater eddy. Every day, I must remind myself how much words matter.
Speed has a way of devaluing our language. In a crisis, we grab the first word close at hand. We don’t trouble ourselves over nuance or precision.
This is unsustainable, and if we don’t resist, we can undermine our true identity and our purpose in the world.
Who are we? We are those who “have tasted the goodness of the word of God” (Hebrews 6:5).
But too many of us are still hungry. Too many of us have forgotten we were ever invited to feast.
I suppose even rescue boats require time to build. Compared with dahlias and ducklings, boats and books need much more than a single summer. The helpers and rescuers may leap into action, but they do so on boats that have been built and maintained with care. They do so according to plans that have been prepared and practiced over decades.
Rescue is also a kind of discipline.
The world is saved through slow work (raising babies, restoring buildings, writing books). The world is saved through the quick and ephemeral (preaching sermons, delivering water). There is urgency, but it is not for every one of us on every single day.
The world is always spinning, always moving, shifting, and changing. Right now I feel the curl and curve of it beneath my feet, and, occasionally, I stumble.
But for the next few months, I will go on stumbling back to this chair and back to this overcrowded desk. I will do this because I believe when Jesus said “my words will never pass away,” he invited each one of us to root our words (our conversations, our social media posts, our books) in the Word. The same Word through whom all things were made and all things are being newly made.
See! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Even now our language, full of grace and seasoned with salt, is being swept up to play its part in a new creation.
For weeks now my children have not been able to stop themselves from singing April showers bring May flowers. Even the four-year-old, she who serenades her dinner companions every evening with the months-of-the-year ditty she learned in preschool, knows that this song is not yet quite appropriate. But each one of them also knows that it is raining, again, and something new is just there on the far side of the horizon.
And so they sing.
Today is the last day of March, and it is raining cats and dogs. It is raining puddles and mud. It is gushing, washing, rinsing, quenching. I planned to visit the library, but this rain is too much even for the tall, waterproof boots I wear in the garden. It is too much even for my one remaining unbroken umbrella. I am drinking tea and typing these words instead.
Someone sent me a message. You know about trees. Tell me, why is my river birch dripping water? Why is it trickling, oozing, seeping, leaking? Is something wrong?
Nothing is wrong, I told her. All trees know how to sing, but some trees also know how to cry.
When the weather turns from warm to wet, a birch tree will drip, drip, drip.
Last year in Hawaii, I saw trees sheathed in rainbows.
The rainbow eucalyptus thrives in tropical climates. It is happiest in rain-washed places. It sheds its bark, and what remains are long, vertical strips of color: red, orange, green, blue, gray. Rainbows trickle, ooze, seep, and leak their colors down the length of each trunk.
I saw those colors from the car window as we drove toward the North Shore. We had flowery leis in our laps. Later, we tore the string and tossed the flowers and said one more goodbye to the man who died just there, above those waters. Somewhere just to the right of the rainbow and to the left of the singing whale, he went where we cannot yet follow.
I visited my friend this week and saw a rough wooden cross in the corner of her small sitting room. It was our Christmas tree, she told me. Now it is our Easter cross.
I’m sure her tree was beautiful. I have forgotten the name, but she said it was some rare variety: silvery and soft. That beauty is lost. What remains is harsh and looked out of place propped in the corner of the room. It can’t be easy, I thought, to live with this cross.
Some legends say that Jesus’s cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree. Apparently, these trees do grow in that region of the world. No matter where they grow, aspen leaves startle and stir in even a slight breeze. It is said the tree trembles for what it has seen and how it was used.
I read somewhere that in Hebrew the name of this tree is baca. This is also the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84. When I go to check my memory against the knowledge of the internet, I find that baca might mean balsam-tree. It might mean mulberry.
It seems there are many trees associated with weeping.
In Psalm 84, the Valley of Weeping changes as we walk through it. By the touch of our feet, it becomes a place of springs. Then the early rains come, but they do not bring puddles or mud. They bring blessing.
I do not want to walk through the valley. I am tired of tears (drip, drip, drip). I do not want to trip over the ugly, bare cross in the corner of the room, and I certainly do not want to carry it on my back.
Today, I do not even want the rain.
But I want the rainbows. I want the May flowers. I want, yes I admit, I want the blessing.
I want to know what the trees have always known.
I want to know what it is to be planted, planted so deep and so well, that not even death can pull up these roots.
Oh, death. Where is your sting? You grab at us. You scratch and claw. And what is revealed?
I still remember when I discovered Hilary Yancey’s writing online. She writes the kind of sweet-sharp prose that I love. Hers is the beautifully precise storytelling that hurts a little to read but always in the best possible way. I remember thinking, “I hope she writes a book one day.”
I am so pleased to share the following guest post from Hilary with you. She writes for those who are waiting for help or good news but worry time is running out. She writes for those who wonder why there seems to be no miracle for them.
Hilary reminds me that good news unfolds in time. Rarely can we receive it in an instant. Instead, it is, like grace, something that reveals itself slowly. But given time, it will sink its roots down deep into our lives changing, not only our present and our future, but our past as well.
I was all grace-less worry the first six weeks of my son’s life. He was born into the bright steadying lights of the NICU. He was born into weeks of poking, prodding, scoped up and down. His first pictures besides our Instagram snapshots were the flickery black and white of heart and head and kidney ultrasounds.
Two by two, we would go into that ark, my husband and I. Two by two, and no more than that at a time. In the mornings the attending physicians and residents would form a crescent moon standing around his bassinet, and the real moon would take the night watch alongside us.
We are all born into motherhood. The labor is from us, and for us, and so I too was welcomed by bright lights and pulsing blue and red monitors. I too was born into an endless click, click of blood pressure cuffs and kinked IV needles and blanket forts to hide us while we slept.
This birthing birthed in me a worry of keeping it together, of keeping on for him, a worry of being enough. I have known this worry before, but it has a different shape in the helpless hallways of a hospital. I was told by every sign and monitor and nurse who ran past me for the red or yellow alarm that I – the mother, the one they say is everything and has been everything – was not the only person my son needed. I was reminded of this when I had to leave Jack’s bedside or faint from not eating. I was reminded when I tossed and turned in the hotel bed that felt suddenly empty.
It ripped me wide, this birth into hand sanitizer rituals and the required removal of wedding rings, these quiet conference rooms where the patient in bed 34 was the topic of conversation, where my son was the patient in bed 34. In all this worry I lost the thread that binds us back together. I lost the thread of the hem of the robe of Jesus.
I think of the woman and her hemorrhages. I think of myself and the way I seemed to hemorrhage confidence and trust as I walked the same dreaded hallways. Is that how she felt, finally seeing his feet passing her by, walking somewhere else? Why didn’t he stop for me – I’ve been here for years – what other house must he go to? What other miracle is more worthy than mine?
I became, this past year, the woman suffering from hemhorrages. I sat down on the side of the road and day after day I thought Jesus would never walk by, that I would never get the chance to reach out for his robe. I wondered if there was any strength left to do even that. When I was pregnant with my son I used to read him the Jesus Storybook Bible. “‘We don’t have time!’ Jesus’ friends said. But Jesus always had time. He reached out his hands and gently lifted her head. He looked into her eyes and smiled. ‘You believed,’ he said, wiping a tear from her eye, ‘and now you are well.’
Just then, Jairus’ servant rushed up to Jairus. ‘It’s too late,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Your daughter is dead.’ Jesus turned to Jairus. ‘It’s not too late,’ Jesus said. ‘Trust me.’”
There is the place where Jesus is going. And then there is the woman I believe he always waited for along the road. I believe that road wanders through the bright hallways of the hospital, past me, that he always has enough time for me to reach out for his robe.
And now, one year later, I open the book to this page, to this story. I am the woman with her fingers grasping the edge of Jesus and I am the woman receiving grace from him, a grace that pours back over the worrying, the disbelieving, the many days when I walked the hallways in quiet desperation. Even when I thought there was no time – Jesus has always had more than enough. Jesus was waiting, maybe even trusting, that we will stop him and touch the hem of his robe.
Hilary Yancey is mama to Jack, wife to Preston and in the midst of getting a PhD in philosophy from Baylor University. When she isn’t chasing an idea, a busy toddler, or learning the first few steps in her adult beginner ballet class, you can find her writing at her blog the wild love or on Instagram at @hilaryyancey.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (Psalm 116:15).
It is precious as a rainbow above green velvet cliffs.
It is precious as the full moon on that warm night when we gathered to cry for him and laughed remembering him.
It is as precious as a Hawaiian lei. We cut the thread, we scattered the flowers, and the thunder waves of the North Shore sent them back to us, pink petals on our toes.
But they did not send Shawn back. He was not theirs to return.
He is his Maker’s.
He is not ours, though we can still recall the exact sound of his laugh and the precise tone of his voice, as if he had only just called out to us from the other room.
Last January, I stood on a moonlit shore listening to a legendary Hawaiian surfer tell me what he had seen and heard from his beach-front house on January 14. The hem of my turquoise sundress trailed in the water like a mermaid’s bedraggled tail.
I am no mermaid. I know maple trees, and I love the green hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The water that tugged at my dress frightened me. But this man had known waves for decades, and he loved the wild waters of Oahu’s North Shore. He told story after story, while I began to see rightly and truly the place where I stood. I began to see these dangerous waters through the lens of this man’s great love for them.
He spoke of fire and a noise like thunder and of waves so high it was as if the ocean understood. The ocean offered up its own anguish before we knew to offer ours. Shawn and the eleven men flying with him that night did not die unseen in a swirl of chaos. They died in a known place, in a much-loved place; a door opened for them, and arms of welcome enfolded them, in one of the most astonishingly beautiful places on earth.
“If I could choose the spot where I would die and be buried, I would choose these waves right here,” the man told me.
I have thought many times since our conversation of an Old Testament tale:
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
And Elisha, who loved him, went on walking, alone, as the reflection of heavenly fire faded from his eyes, and the skies returned to their ordinary, silent gray.
There was no door in the sky for Elisha, and there is no door for us, as yet.
The fire has faded, and the wind has stilled. One year later, rainbows are harder to come by.
And yet, when I slow my usual busyness, when I pause and reflect, I realize that the hems of our clothing still trail through salty water. The turtle-dotted waves of the North Shore offered a kind of baptism, and we have not shaken that water off yet.
God willing, we never will.
This is living water. It poured from the cross when an innocent man, and the maker of us all, died to set things right. Shawn chose every day to hide his life in the life of the innocent One who defeated death, and so his death shares in the power of Christ’s own. Losing Shawn has left us shocked and grieving, yes, but the loss has also unleashed rivers of living water.
And even when we cry we trail streams of rainbow glory.
Shawn Campbell’s legacy.
We are rounding the bend. We are nearing the end.
These sacred days will soon reach their fulfillment.
With Christmas on the near horizon, I am so pleased to offer you this Advent story from my friend and fellow writer, Bonnie O’Neil.
The memories come flooding back to me, as they do on many a cold, dark December night. Flashes of a night, just like this one, many years ago. I was younger then, bright-eyed, full of hopes and big dreams.
The streets are deserted, save for my husband and me. I hear the click-clack of my soles on the cobblestones and press forward, click-clack, steady on. My feet, I cannot see. All is belly, swollen with the joy of life inside of me.
The wind howls. I wrap my garments tighter around me.
I reach out for his arm to steady me as I go. My feet falter on the uneven stones; his strong arm upholds me. It is just the two of us in this foreign land. There will be no mother by my side as I prepare to deliver my first-born child.
Inhaling the cold December air, I exhale the promise of all things new and wonderful. My warm breath hangs in the air, luminous against the cold dark night, and I sigh with relief that the child lies safe and warm inside me tonight.
Mystery, all is mystery and wonder. It is just days, hours perhaps, before I step into the vast unknown and begin the mysterious journey of motherhood. All is wonder. What will this child become? What kind of mother will I grow to be? There is much to ponder; there will be much to treasure in my heart.
I don’t think I fully appreciated Mary and her journey of faith until I was expecting a child of my own. All is Nativity in December, so when you are awaiting your own Christmas baby, I suppose it is natural to stop and reflect on the wonder not just of the incarnation of the Christ child, but also of the faith of the young woman who said yes to becoming His mother.
She was a teenager; I was 30. But that doesn’t mean I knew any more than she did about babies. In fact, she probably knew more! Her cobblestones graced the streets of Bethlehem, far from her Nazareth home; my stones lined the streets of medieval Paris, where my husband and I were living, farther still from any family or close friends. I can feel her aloneness.
There is no fighting the loss of control. It is too late for that now. I sense her acceptance of “what is”.
Her story was, of course, far more faith-stretching than mine. By faith, she accepted that the impossible would become possible as the Son of God became incarnate within her very womb. By faith, she accepted a life of ridicule and judgment as all manner of false conclusions were drawn about her. By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.
No matter how old we are or how long we have been trying to walk by faith, we all still have times when we feel like Mary. Alone. Vulnerable. Insignificant. Unqualified to accomplish a small thing, let alone a big thing. And how like our God to come in those moments and ask the big thing of us.
To say yes to God often involves saying no to myself. No to my in-the-moment need for retribution or recognition. To choose the Mary way is to choose the self-emptying way. It requires nothing less than the intentional surrendering of my will so that I may hear the voice of the Father calling to me.
It is the daily invitation to echo the cry of the God-Man, not my will but yours be done.
To embrace the mystery of Christmas is to accept the mystery of the unknown. It is to throw off the burden of needing control and easy answers and choosing instead to entrust our lives to God’s loving hands. It is to choose a life of outrageous faith amidst a world that says it will only believe once it truly understands. It is to declare with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”
In this Advent season, we can all be carriers of the Christ child. We choose every day whom we will serve – the Lord and others, or ourselves. May we, like Mary, choose the mystery of a faith-filled life.
Bonnie O’Neil is a gifted writer, speaker, and Bible teacher. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, on the edge of bucolic Chester County, and is the mother of three mostly-raised children. She is passionate about helping others experience the God of love, finding a cure for type 1 diabetes, filling her senses with beauty, and exploring all things France.
I am a mother well-acquainted with the fears and anxieties of raising a son with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and Bonnie’s wisdom, born of hard experience, has become a special gift to me. I can say of her what she has written here about Mary: “By faith, she accepted that her child’s life was truly in her heavenly Father’s hands.” With Bonnie’s encouragement, I am doing the same.
Already a consistent blogger, Bonnie has plans to begin writing out the lessons she has learned during her years of raising a medically vulnerable child. I encourage you to sign up here to receive those upcoming blog posts by email.