I wrote this Advent reflection two years ago. My daughter is twelve now, but she still asks difficult questions. I still have no easy answers.
When I began writing these Advent reflections, I had a very general structure in mind. The whole series would move, I thought, from dark to light, from ordinary to extraordinary, from dust and dirt to starlight.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Instead, I have consulted this writing plan each morning and discovered my own emptiness. No words. No stories. No ideas. Which is a desperate place and a very good place to find oneself. It has led me to frantic prayer and constant listening. Finding no stories in the plan, I have listened hard for any hint of story in my day.
Often, I have found my stories in my daughter’s difficult observations.
Yesterday, she said, “I think it must be the worst thing in the world to have a child who dies.”
I am a writer, and I abhor a platitude, an easy answer. The cliché we use to bypass actual thought. Even so, it can be tempting to fall back on those things when we are faced with the unanswerable and the terrible. But I have learned a few things from writing and from reading, and I have learned a few things mothering this daughter.
I fight the pull of the pretty, easy answer and say nothing but “Yes, yes, I know.”
She is only ten, but she already understands love’s terrible shadow. She knows intuitively, without ever being taught, that great love rips us open. Leaves us wounded and bleeding.
I have no good answers for these kinds of questions. I have no band-aid for this degree of pain. Today, I do not even have much of a story. Sometimes, the world looks darker and more ordinary the closer we get to Christmas. Sometimes, there is no perfect, timely trajectory from Advent waiting to Christmas fulfillment.
But if I have no story, I do have this one thing to share with you. A vision of sorts.
After our conversation, I kept seeing a picture in my mind. It was my daughter, so full of difficult questions and a grief too old for her years, and she was wearing the angel costume we once found at a thrift store. It is white and shimmery, and the padded, embroidered wings are gold.
I kept seeing her sad eyes against the white glow of the angel’s dress, and I realized, I think for the first time, how much our Christmas gift was heaven’s loss.
I realized how vast an emptiness the Prince of Heaven left behind him when he poured himself into Mary’s womb.
I looked into angel eyes, and they seemed to say, “We have lost him. We have said goodbye. How long till he returns to us?”
I can’t erase love’s dark shadow, and I’m not sure I would if I could. But I know that the parent heart of God has known it all already. He has passed by a heavenly chamber and found it empty. Heart-breakingly empty. And I know he suffered that pain for love.
And yet, the emptiness of heaven at the moment of incarnation is as much good news as the emptiness of the tomb.
This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the good news of our restoration.
This is the comfort of believing God sees our emptiness, our pain and says, “Yes, yes, I know.”
On Friday night, we sat in a high school auditorium beneath the flutter of paper doves and peace signs dangling on strings. The theme of my children’s annual holiday show was peace on earth.
There were musical performances from around the world. I was glad the first-graders were assigned the United States, though somehow my little boy and I still managed to clash over which sweater and which pair of blue jeans he would wear.
There was a video tribute to the victims in Paris. Then the head of school remembered the even more recent tragedy in California. While hundreds of childish voices swelled in song, I thought, Maybe we should recall the politicians and put the schoolkids in charge?
On the drive home, a small voice piped up from the backseat, “What happened in California?”
On Saturday morning, I dragged a bag of garbage out toward the shed. The air was frosted pink and blue, and each blade of grass was edged in white. Halfway across the lawn I stumbled over some contraption hammered together with scrap wood and nails. Shifting it with my foot, I recognized a military gun. My boys had been fighting imaginary battles again.
I don’t know what that kind of weapon is called, but my nine-year-old son could tell you. He reads a lot of history. He knows a great deal about war.
On Sunday, we lit the second Advent candle, the candle of peace. Or, we tried to. An argument broke out between my younger son on one side of the table and my firstborn girl on the other. As quickly as he lit the candle, she blew it out. Light the candle. Blow it out.
“It’s not your turn,” someone hissed.
That same Sunday morning, I had read an article in the newspaper about the band U2. They were preparing to perform the Paris concerts that had been cancelled in the immediate wake of the attacks. Their stage show features the sounds of a car bomb, recalling the violence that Bono and his band knew as adolescents in Ireland.
Bono said, “Peace is the opposite of dreaming. It’s built slowly and surely through brutal compromises and tiny victories that you don’t even see. It’s a messy business bringing peace into the world. But it can be done, I’m sure of that.”
Peter had a sword. We have car bombs and semi-automatic guns. As humanity creates deadlier and deadlier weapons, turning the other cheek begins to look more and more ridiculous.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Perhaps that’s the root of our problem. We don’t want to be children.
We want to be heroes.
My nine-year-old son and I are a lot alike. We both love history. We are both dreamers. We both need a better story.
He needs to hear that laying down your life requires more bravery than defending it. I need to hear that peace is possible.
That it is even possible in my own home.
I didn’t plan to talk to my children about terrorism or the Syrian refugees, but my children are older now and I have less control. Sometimes, I thank God I have less control.
When my daughter said her school had held a moment of silence to remember or pray for Paris, my older son asked why.
I spoke a few words about the terrorists and those who died at their hands. I mentioned the millions of children who have lost their homes and are searching for new ones.
My younger son interrupted us, impatient and eager to clear away this heavy conversation.
Sweeping his arm toward the rest of our house, he asked, “Why can’t they just stay here?”
We only stared at him.
For a moment, it was completely silent in my kitchen.
I wrote Roots and Sky because I wanted to explore questions I had been asking for years. I wrote it because I knew I wasn’t the only one asking them.
Why do I feel such longing for a home?
Is that desire a distraction from my commitment to follow the One who had no place to lay his head?
Is it even possible to feel at home this side of heaven?
As I wrote, I discovered the answer to this last question is yes.
With all the recent talk of immigrants and refugees, I have had a few terrible words lodged in my mind.
Go home! Go back to where you came from!
That has been the taunt for generations, hasn’t it? I imagine a few of my own ancestors may have heard it. Perhaps a few of yours, too.
But today, in my imagination, I hear a refugee voice crying, If only, if only, if only I could.
As I wrote my book, I encountered my own refugee roots.
In the beginning, our spiritual father and mother called paradise home. That home slipped from their grasp and there was no going back. Whether we call that ancient story myth or history or wisdom poetry, we all know the shadow of that loss.
Soon we will celebrate the good news that while we still wandered, heaven came to us. God’s message of peace and goodwill to all men was once a refugee baby in Egypt. The message wasn’t some spiritual abstraction. It was flesh and blood. Mary sheltered good news in her arms.
The story of Roots and Sky is the story of Jesus’s promise to come to us and make his home with us (John 14:23). In my life, that promise has been fulfilled in the old bricks and crumbling plaster of a farmhouse called Maplehurst. If his banner over us is love, my own particular banner is three stories high and a bit ragged around the edges.
No wonder my heart breaks for the homeless.
I have two spare beds in my house. There is a big bed in our guestroom and a little bed tucked against the wall in my office. Those extra beds are often full but not always. We are grateful for the young woman who lives in another spare bedroom. When we began looking for an old house, it was always because we wanted room for others to live with us. Her presence here is another of God’s promises kept.
Maybe if I lived on the front lines of this humanitarian crisis, I could invite homeless families to share my home. Like this man did. For now, I am seeking out other ways to help.
That incredible man and his family remind me that doing good is not complicated nor is it abstract. Rather, it is very hard and very simple.
The good news is also very simple. It might be food. It might be medicine. It might even be a large chest of drawers, hauled up too many flights of steps. All of it given, with no strings attached, in the name of Jesus.
It is in Jesus that I have found my way home to God. That is why I will leave the door of this old house open. That is why I will say what’s mine is yours.
It isn’t safe. It isn’t smart. But it is the right thing to do.
Because I am not the only one who wants to come home.
He stood, leaning on a shovel, taking a break from digging out tree roots in my neighbor’s yard. He was on one side of the split-rail fence. I was on the other. He looked past my shoulder, watching the chickens scratch and peck.
He said, “I like your chickens. Your home. It is like my country. It is like my home in Mexico.”
He’d been in our home for days. He and his team. Drilling holes. Snaking pipes behind plaster walls. Jonathan told me later what he said as they stood, talking, out in the yard.
He said, “Your home is so peaceful. It reminds me of my country. It reminds me of Vietnam.”
I doubt that a red-brick farmhouse in Pennsylvania looks like Mexico. It seems unlikely to me that it looks anything like Vietnam. But there is something about this house on a hilltop. This old house with its gardens and chickens and songbirds. Something about it whispers Peace. Something about it sings Home.
Most miraculous of all, to me at least, is that the whispers are louder than the noise of my four children (or my own responses to those children). Louder than brothers fighting or toddlers tantrum-ing.
Whispers so loud, so insistent, they make grown men pause. And remember.
And dream of home.
As long as Jonathan and I have been making homes together (whether a tiny apartment, a city high rise, a suburban split-level, or a century-old farmhouse) visitors have said the same thing:
Your home is so peaceful.
I have heard those words with gratitude but also with detachment. Because surely that peace had nothing to do with me? It wasn’t something I created or controlled.
It was a gift. Always and only a gift.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. It is a presence. It is a place.
It has a prince.
It is a gift. But like so many good gifts, it can also be cultivated. Like soil.
We can slap down some concrete and rid ourselves of all that bothersome dust. Or we can grow tomatoes. Or flowers. We can sow peace. We can water it. We can watch it flourish.
Like gardening, it is hard work. It is a daily discipline.
How do we cultivate peace? In our hearts, our homes, our communities?
I think we begin by making room for it.
So many of us, myself included, live with too much. Too much in our closets and too much in our day planners. We see an empty shelf, and we fill it. We stumble on an empty moment, and we pounce on our to-do list. We feel some hunger and we rush … to the pantry, to the television, to the computer.
And then we wonder why our lives, why our world, is saturated with conflict and worry. Loneliness and hurry.
Peace begins with simplicity. Is simplicity the soil, the water, the sun? I don’t know. My understanding is limited, my metaphor possibly faulty. I don’t yet fully grasp the relationship between the two, but they are related.
I think they may be more deeply related than I have ever known.
I used to think that simplicity was a lifestyle choice. I am beginning to think it is the only way to follow Jesus.
Simplicity is the way of the child. The way of a rich young ruler who says yes and gives everything away. Simplicity just may be the door to the kingdom of God.
I have in mind a series of posts. Not because I have learned “Ten Lessons” or “Five Secrets.” It is only that I am noticing patterns in my past. Patterns that suggest it is possible to practice simplicity and cultivate peace with more deliberateness and passion.
And I want to talk about that here. With you.
I am more than a little bit afraid. Afraid of the price I must pay to walk this way. Afraid of sounding preachy if I talk about it.
But I am also hopeful. Excited, even. Simplicity is as heavy as a cross on my shoulder. But the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of the prince of peace, is an upside-down kingdom. And that heavy burden?
It is the light yoke, the easy burden of freedom.
I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.
Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.
Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.
After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby. I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.
Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.
The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.
This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes. When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?
Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.
She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.
At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.
I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.
“Would you like to hold him?”
The answer will always be yes.
I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.
But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?
I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.
I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.
His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.
Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?
Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.
Let earth receive her king.
Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.
Advent has nearly reached its fulfillment, yet I am finding the peace it promises just a little harder to grasp as Christmas approaches.
How easily I can be undone by one two-year-old with a permanent marker and an extra-long grocery list.
My friend Ashley has given me a gift this morning. It took me longer than anticipated to post it for you because I can’t stop re-reading it. I want to feel the truth of it that desperately. I want to forget the fourteen things still on my to-do list. I want to be overwhelmed in the way she describes.
By his light.
We drive I-5 through Oregon’s mid-section, far from major cities, and the sky is pitch, punctuated occasionally by lines of Christmas lights and the glow of solitary windows.
For hours, days, anxiety has coursed through my body, and now in the silence of our car, I feel I may succumb to overwhelm – so many details and inadequacies pressing down on my shoulders, shouting through the quiet. But the light finds me in the calls of the dark, and then my eyes are downright searching for the light – this steadying hand, this hope slicing through.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
Out the window I see a curtain of pitch night, and then a parting to reveal the light. Light, light, light. Night.
As we follow the winding freeway, I wonder at those who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and animal back, following the light, not a road, to their destination. Keeping course by the new star on a journey itself until it came to the One worthy of all praise.
I consider the wise men’s trek to Perfect Love held within a little boy’s body, their joy at finally beholding Jesus’s light. I imagine their overwhelm bursting forth in worship, gratitude and praise, the offering of awe, gifts from hands and mouths.
Overwhelm usually speaks to burial and drowning, utter defeat. And I know this when limitations glare and glower, and I feel I might go under. But as I watch through my window at how Light overtakes the dark, I know I truly cannot be consumed by my own mind or this world.
Just look at how light pierces through. And I am guided to the place where He is, and I am overwhelmed.
Ashley Larkin is a story collector, wife to Michael and mother to three shining daughters (ages 12, 9 and 6). She longs to be a place of welcome and seeks hard after the hope and grace found in broken things. A writer, Ashley recently has embraced God’s call to speak to groups of women, as well. She delights in sharing face to beautiful face about our completeness and utter beloved-ness in Christ. Ashley and her family live in a 110-year-old house in Portland, Oregon with a grove of horse chestnut trees that clearly has taken over. You can find her blogging about living fully awake to the messy glory of everyday moments here and on Twitter here.