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.
Earlier this week, I drove the curling, twisting country roads between my house and my youngest boy’s school. We carpool with neighbors, and I make that same drive on most afternoons.
It is twelve minutes, precisely. Twelve minutes of fieldstone farmhouses, enormous red barns, undulating fields, and one silvery, meandering brook. I see more cattle and horses than cars. I pass not one but two little houses that once were one-room schools.
We’d had sun for days, the kind of low autumn sun that blinds you all day long, but this day the sky was whitewashed. We have reached that point in November when the only green left is the dense, foreboding green of the hemlocks, the spruces, and the pines. Many of the deciduous trees are bare, and looking at them is like looking straight into the face of winter.
What remains is like a volcanic eruption: crimsons and coppers and a gold so gold it smolders. I had thought the autumn colors still here at the end of the season would be faded and delicate, but the trees I saw were heavy. They were fierce. They didn’t need sunlight to make them burn.
Those trees were disturbers of the peace.
This week, I’ve been remembering that moment in Luke when Jesus gazes out over Jerusalem and weeps.
The tears come just after he has been hailed as king. The adoration and praise were so chaotic, so exuberant, and so politically charged, that the religious leaders cried out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus said, “I tell you … if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
And then he weeps for this city. He cries because peace is so near yet so hidden from them.
All I want in my house is a little peace and quiet, and most days I’ll pay any price.
My youngest two erupt together with such regularity that I have no patience for detangling the threads of their accusations. I don’t care! I yell. Just be quiet!
In my better moments, I beg them to apologize. I ask them to share a hug. Please, guys, just patch things up. All I want is a little peace and quiet while I cook your dinner.
Yet I know that the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke is for me: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
“Peace, peace,” I say, because I do not want to face their anger, I do not want to feel their hurt, I do not want to see the wounds.
I come by my avoidance, honestly. In the south we are nice to a fault. We say bless her heart, and while we sometimes mean exactly that, we sometimes mean, would you look at that fool. The true meaning of our words can be elusive.
I have missed that southern niceness in every home I have ever made since first moving away. Chit chat with the store clerk and a friendly wave to the passing driver can make the world go round more pleasantly. Southern niceness says, I see you. It says, I may not know you, but I am sure you are worth my time.
Southern niceness has not always served me well. I will always remember the teaching evaluation I received at the end of a semester-long course that included a few particularly disruptive first-year college students. One student wrote, “Dr. Purifoy is very nice. Perhaps too nice.”
Niceness is sometimes loving and sometimes anything but.
Peace and quiet is sometimes peaceful and sometimes it is its very opposite. It is sometimes a wound so well-bandaged, so hidden and obscured, there is little hope for healing.
Maybe it is enough to hail Jesus as king. Perhaps all we need do is wave our palms and sing a chorus of praise. Will that still the stones? Will that quiet the disruptive song of the trees?
I think not. Ours, after all, is a weeping king. Ours is a king with a heart broken for us. Could it be there are days when the only way to sing his praise, the only way to acknowledge his kingship over us, is to cry with him, to ask, Lord, what wounds do you see? Lord, what is hidden from me?
For months, I’ve been stumbling over the same few verses. I don’t go looking for them, but they are there when I open my Bible, there in an email from a friend, there in a sermon on Sunday morning. They are chasing me down.
The first comes from the story of Nehemiah. The walls of Jerusalem are in ruins, and repairing them is an impossible task. Nehemiah inspired a few to begin rebuilding, but the willing are mocked for their efforts. Nehemiah is not deterred: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.” Having been confronted by those words for the fourth or fifth time, I sat in my office trying to puzzle them out. Did they have something to say to me? But it was difficult to focus with the sound of a grinder chewing up mortar right outside my window.
Brick by brick, we are repairing the walls of this old house.
The second verse comes from Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
Repairer of Broken Walls. I don’t even understand the meaning of that name, but the sound of it is like music. I know it’s the name I most desire for myself. For my family. For my church and for my community.
Yesterday, after dropping my daughter off at preschool, I drove the curving, narrow road down toward the center of our little town. Just before I crossed the railroad tracks, I noticed a building with a graffiti-covered wall on my left. Harsh triple K’s crawled like spiders toward the roof. On my right, directly across from the wall, was a little Missionary Baptist church. The flower pots on either side of the church’s front door overflowed with the fiery lava colors of autumn.
All it took were a few phone calls and a message on the local message board, before dozens of neighbors had mobilized to become Repairers of Broken Walls. As is often the case among neighbors, there is more passion than consensus.
Some are sure the vandalism has been there for years, some are convinced these particular stains are new. Some see racist hatred and some wonder if it might not actually be a protest against racism? The graffiti is a little ambiguous. Like many messages shared in anger, it has not changed anyone’s mind, merely given birth to confusion and outrage.
We are not sure if we’ll paint a mural or merely wash on some beige. Should we plant shrubbery? Install a light or a camera?
Thankfully, we need not agree in order to begin the work.
We can gather. Talk face to face. And pick up that first stone. That one. Right there. The one just crying out.
Go on, says the stone. Disturb the peace that is not really peace, says the tree. Because one thing creation knows, has always known, is that we hail him as King by making his kingdom visible.
Brick by brick and stone by stone.
His feet are clay.
As has ever been true of kings.
Some might say there is nothing in this to grieve. Nothing to cause fear. Certainly no reason for surprise.
What was true of Daniel’s king, was true of David, and true of Solomon, too. Has, in fact, been true of every man or woman to whom we have bowed or pledged our allegiance.
But I have heard the bitter weeping of the envoys of peace, and I am not satisfied with explanations or arguments or platitudes.
I go on dreaming. I go on singing. I go on telling tales of a better king.
This king “will take pity on the weak and the needy.”
This king will “defend the afflicted among the people.”
This king will “will be like showers watering the earth.”
My eyes have seen the king in his beauty.
I have glimpsed a land that stretches afar.
It is a peaceful abode and a place of broad rivers and streams.
No galley with oars rides them. In this place, even the lame carry off plunder.
Because the loaves and fishes are ever being broken and passed on, they multiply. Because the jar of oil is always being emptied, that jar is never dry. There is more than enough for me and my neighbor.
There is even enough for my enemy.
This is the song I sing, yet I cannot always be singing.
When I pause my song, when I wake, or when my story reaches its end, I weep.
I weep because the king we hold in our hands falls so very short of the king who ever walks on the edge of my dreams.
I sit by the river, and I weep when I remember all that I have seen. I weep when I remember the prayer of generations:
Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.
*my own song is inspired by Psalm 72, Psalm 137, and Isaiah 33
We planted a tree on Friday.
It is a red oak tree, and we planted it for Shawn.
I’d ordered it in June for fall planting. It arrived at the nursery weeks ago, but somehow I never received the message. I found out it was ready only a few days before my family, the family I so rarely see, came to stay.
We have two shovels. My husband, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew took turns digging. My brother’s wife held the baby who was born the day of Shawn’s memorial service. The baby who shares his name.
The wind was a little too blustery for a nine-month-old more accustomed to Texas heat, but instead of carrying him back inside, I tried to block the wind with my body. I thought of how the tree will grow as he grows.
We tipped the tree out of its container and watered it well. I suppose its leaves were green when it was first set aside for us at the nursery, but now they are mottled with dark red like dried blood and bright red like the berries on our winterberry shrubs.
This tree is young, but it already knows what every tree knows: there is a space between life and death, and it has its own particular beauty.
The story of our world is a story of three trees.
In the beginning there was a tree of life, but we fell from that flourishing green perfection and went on falling until it seemed that death and evil and suffering would always have the last word.
He was like us, yet he did not fall. On a cross fashioned from a broken tree, he submitted to death and suffering, and so defeated them.
Now the power that carried him from death to life is transforming us from the inside out. And it is transforming our world from the inside out. One day that transformation will be complete, the distance between the way things are and the way they were always meant to be will be erased, and we will live in the green shade of another tree of life.
The leaves of that third tree, we are told, “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).
I can think of few things I want more.
I can think of few things we need more because words wound as well as sticks and stones and bombs.
Is it only a far-off dream? A happily-ever-after story we pull like wool over our eyes during days of trouble?
The radiant leaves of Shawn’s tree say otherwise. When the wind picks up, I hear them whisper, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” (Proverbs 11:30).
Because of Shawn, a tree of life has spread its roots through our family and among many friends. It is as real as this red oak tree. Things that were broken in our hearts or our relationships or our ways of living in the world are being made right. Healing we did not even know we needed has begun.
Our world is caught somewhere between death and life. It is like a tree glowing with autumn color. It breaks our hearts even as it dazzles our eyes.
But the seeds for that third tree have already been sown.
Controversies may swirl and bullets may fly (both metaphorical and all too real), but we are not afraid. We are not dismayed.
We are too busy planting and tending trees.
And that will make all the difference in the world.
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.
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.