I am incredibly grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the internet.
But there is nothing like sitting face to face. Nothing like talking over cups of coffee while children run through our legs (or beg for another push on the swing). Campbell has been that friend to me, and I am grateful beyond words.
Campbell is also a smart and talented writer, and she’s written the Advent reflection I desperately needed as Christmas Day approaches.
Every year, I am surprised when the world doesn’t seem to grow brighter, lighter as Christmas nears. Every year, at about this point, I wonder what is the point? The news goes from bad to horrific, and, like Campbell, I fear Christmas joy will never be found. Peace is impossible.
But here is hope. Here is the light that shines in darkness. That has not, nor ever will be, overcome.
Looking for Christmas
I’m looking hard for Christmas this year. I feel my broken edges, sharp and pointy, and I’m tired and weary from the world. I’m needing something holy. I’m trying to find Jesus, trying hard to see the babe in swaddling clothes, the one who brings light and love and makes things right again.
Maybe Christmas looks like twinkly lights, strung along roof lines and spun around bushes. Is this holiness – these tiny dots of light, twisted and tied into a brighter picture? One small LED bulb isn’t much on its own, but step back a bit and I can see the shape of a reindeer, or the letters that spell out “peace.”
My small light isn’t much on its own, either. Sometimes, even, a bulb or two are missing or out. Maybe if I string my little light offerings with your little sparks we can step back and see His burst of glory, the grand story spelled out in twinkles. Peace for each other, one small light at a time.
Maybe Christmas is like this: – maybe it’s the late night rock concert, where I’m sitting with folks who I know and folks I don’t and it smells like sweat and beer. It seems about as holy as donkey poop and hay. The darkness inside the theater is not unlike the winter dark.
The show has built with percussive intensity and it’s nearing the end. I’ve scooted my way to the edge of my seat. My body is prickly with emotional electricity, as if I could start a forest fire, standing too close to tinder and kindling. She stands at the edge of the stage, surrounded by her bandmates, lit up like a Christmas tree, and after one big breath in she lets it all out: “Rivers and roads” she belts out with emotional intensity, “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. The strength of her voice is punctuated by a sharp drumbeat and with it the lights die out. The theater is absolutely dark, utterly quiet. Maybe like Bethlehem?
She breathes deep, maybe we all do, and she sings it again “Rivers and roads, rivers till I reach you.” Boom. We are in darkness again.
This year has been nothing but tinder and kindling, and I’m in flames.
I think Christmas is like this: the pitch darkness, the creeping loneliness, the cold intensity of a world too big, too hard, too closed in. And when the light bursts back, it’s with this same message: till I reach you. To reach me. Rivers, roads, fields, trees, stars, stables, donkeys. It is all the message, and all the means, and it is Jesus here, in this darkness, in this theater, in my heart, reaching. Reaching. Boom. The show lights are back on.
We buried our grandfather, generous patriarch of this wide family, this week. He lived a glorious life, but there is heartache and sadness as we think of a tomorrow with no Grandpop in it. Can the babe in swaddling clothes be here, too, graveside with our grieving family, listening to Taps on the bugle behind us?
It’s through this veil of tears that somehow I see that He is here. He’s reaching us, rivers and roads, to hold hands and wrap His arms of love around me, around you. Not like my imaginary friend Jenny, who I used to see in the mirrors in the produce section at the grocery store, a fancy image of what I wanted to see. But instead Jesus is God himself, with me. He became human, cried human tears, laughed human laughs. Maybe He had heart burn and runny noses. He got tired and hungry and angry and hurt. And He loved. He gave love, He showed love, He is love.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t know where to look for Jesus, or how to find Christmas this year. What I’m finding is that it can all be holy, because in God becoming human He sanctified it all. His holiness is everywhere. And through sadness and weariness, He’s reaching me with twinkle lights and rock concerts.
Campbell C. Hoffman can be found with her carpenter-husband on a trail in Southeast Pennsylvania, encouraging (read: begging) her three kids to keep hiking. When she is not hiking, she is on another adventure not altogether different: motherhood. She writes about it on her blog and can be found on Twitter @tumbledweeds. Campbell’s work has also appeared at Brain, Child Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Mamalode.
Kimberly and I have been online friends for a few years, but we met for the first time in person just this October. I’ve recently taken a few friendships from the online world to the real world, and it is always a treat to discover that the person you like from a distance is also completely likeable face to face. But Kimberly? Well, we spent almost the entirety of our first in-person conversation saying, “You too??” We are more alike than I ever would have guessed, and I love knowing that this talented writer and like-minded friend is only a few hours away by car.
And this reflection? Well, this may be Kimberly’s first year observing Advent, but she has captured it beautifully, perfectly.
Here is an Advent treasure.
To Hold Longing
I hand-picked the peeling birch branches we cut off the dying tree in the backyard. They’re white and spare and beautiful. Last Christmas, I hung small white doves from every twig. They sat like tiny messengers delivering a promise of peace for the year to come.
This year, I chose those same spare branches to hang the ornaments for our first Jesse tree. Every day, I look at it, and it feels unfinished, lopsided, undone. I miss the doves with promise caught up in their wings. When I hung them, the look was complete. Instant beauty, strung up and done. Next project, please.
Now, the branches sit waiting for the next reminder, the next piece of the Advent story we string into place each night. My children don’t know what to make of it. We’ve never observed Advent before, and they don’t know exactly where this story and this Jesse tree will lead us.
Over the years, they’ve grown increasingly unaccustomed to waiting. They want insta-Christmas with all of the parties and early gifts and holiday cheer distracting them from the wait for presents on Christmas Day. This year, I want all of us to learn what it feels like to sit with the undone. To hold longing. To wait with anticipation for the next thread woven into Jesus’ story to unravel from the spool.
I don’t know what beauty these threads will weave into place. I know the end result is the Baby, but I don’t know what he will teach me in the waiting. I hope to sit with hands cupped, holding each day and each story lightly, ready to catch and then release them onto what’s left of my backyard tree.
Perhaps this is where the manger always leads us, to the tree where everything that appears unfinished is finally called finished and done. I’m sitting with this promise during Advent, believing that the work of redemption is complete, but knowing I wait still, watching for the final threads of this story, for Kingdom come to unfurl.
After three years spent living in Switzerland, Kimberly Coyle recently relocated with her family to New Jersey. She loves stories, chasing beauty, and grace. Always grace. Connect with Kimberly on her blog or on facebook.
Kris Camealy is an encourager with a gift for friendship. Though we have yet to meet in person, I am already blessed to call her friend.
Also, this lady knows how to get things done. At least, that’s how it looks from where I sit. I have no idea how she manages to write and create and teach and organize (and cook!) the way she does, but she inspires me.
I think her reflection will inspire you, too, though it is her vulnerability, even her weakness, that shines so beautifully in this piece.
In the middle of the busiest shopping weekend of the year, with the steady lure of distractions and temptations streaming into my inbox, I fight to be present—to pay attention.
The Saturday before Advent, I listen to a scripture reading on my phone while warming Thanksgiving leftovers for dinner. The recorded voice reads a passage from the 13th chapter of the book of Mark. As I listen to Jesus’s words to his disciples urging them to “stay awake,” I am struck by the insistence with which He speaks this message.
“Be on guard,” He says. “Stay Awake.”
Meanwhile all I can think about is how tired I am. I turn the page on the calendar; how is it December already? I seem to enter the season of Advent every year like this — unprepared, tired, and teetering on anxious. The sun slips away by five pm, and the premature darkness leaves me sagging well before dinner. I shuffle through the evening routine with one eye on the clock, anticipating crawling into bed.
Stay awake, Christ urges. For you do not know when the master of the house will come…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep (Mark 13:36).
Advent comes with an unbearable weight bearing down, the expectation of Christ coming. I wonder if Mary was able to stay awake in the waiting? How long a journey it was to Bethlehem, to stable, to the floor of a crude barn, where she spilled the Glory of the World into the soiled hay at the feet of livestock.
Stay awake — five days after hearing them, these words refuse to leave me. Advent comes every year at a pre-determined time, marked on virtually every calendar available. I know exactly when it will begin. I know when it will end. But Christ’s urgency to his disciples reminds me that I don’t really know what I think I know.
The season of Advent offers an opportunity to learn to prepare, to remain awake, even when the temptation to hibernate presses in. Wakefulness requires a conscious effort to be present, even in my weariness.
After dinner I close up the kitchen. I’ve scuttled the kids all off to their beds. I find a quiet spot at the edge of the sofa and sit for the first time in a couple of hours. I light the candle on the table beside me and sit still in the dim, flickering light while the dishwasher hums busy in the background.
Recounting Mary’s journey to the stable, in the dark of a waiting world, Advent invites me to hold on. I’m reminded to ready my heart for the King’s coming.
Stay awake, He urges. Pay attention. Be present.
As a sequin-wearing, homeschooling mother of four, Kris is passionate about Jesus, people and words. Her heart beats to share the hard but glorious truth about life in Christ. She’s been known to take gratuitous pictures of her culinary creations, causing mouths to water all across Instagram. Once upon a time, she ran 10 miles for Compassion International, a ministry for which she serves as an advocate. Kris is the author of Holey, Wholly, Holy: A Lenten Journey of Refinement and the follow up Companion Workbook.
You can read more from Kris at kriscamealy.com.
Kelli Woodford is a kindred spirit. I was sure of that after reading only a few of her online writings, but it was confirmed when we met in person at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College last spring.
Her beautiful words pop up all over the internet, but you can be sure to find her blogging regularly at Chronicles of Grace.
Just South of November
Just south of November, it begins to rain.
The air is heavy in my lungs and on my face. Like a vapor. Somewhere near the corner of the house I hear a persistent rustle which I first mistake for tears from heaven, dropping on bare branches. But further listening reveals that no, in fact, it’s an animal. Small, dependent. Probably a field mouse cloaked by the veil of darkness and mist.
From the deep recesses of memory, words bubble to the surface, and I smile:
… All creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.
In the not-distant-enough, I hear a rising wail of wild coyotes. They are closer than usual on this damp eventide. First one, then two, then the whole pack is howling. This is what they do when they have caught the scent and the chase is on … A chill runs up my spine. The dear animal near my feet stops its chatter. I hurry indoors to the safety of drywall and the hum of dishwashers. My little friend has no such dwelling. He takes his chances in the night.
I pray elemental prayers for the creature who is the source of the coyote’s call, whoever he may be. My imagination gets the best of me and I feel a familiar ache. For there are so many of them, these vicious undomesticated dogs, who threaten whatever is peaceful and simple and wholesome. Who tear to pieces the wandering defenseless.
As the door clicks shut, heavy against my hand, I close my eyes. My resident cynic can’t help but ask if the Lord God didn’t make them all, too. The hunters and the hunted …? What a world, this is. What a place for those who choose the innocence of yielding over the power of the mighty. What chance do they have in the recesses of the engulfing night?
And maybe because it’s Advent, or maybe because of my own baby who sleeps safe in his crib, I begin to think of another gentle Lamb. I begin to imagine what kind of risk wears swaddling clothes and lies in the manger. Among wolves. I feel the innocence of the moment teetering on the verge of disaster, so very near the lion’s mouth.
Because this time of year it’s easy to sentimentalize The Story. To skip right over the rough edges and the what-might-have-been’s. To jump to the ending we know so well. But on nights like this, I’ve a hunch that we do a disservice to The Story when we domesticate it.
Weren’t they treacherous times for God Himself to be born? Wasn’t there a pack of wild dogs slinking in the shadows that holiest of Silent Nights? Didn’t that round yon virgin tremble at the precarious nature of such a plan … ?
Oh, may our pine-scented nostalgia never strip us of this perspective. May all things merry and bright never blind us from the darkness that yet lurks.
For the reality is that it’s not an easy story to tell when you feel the thick air in your lungs and hear the silencing triumph of darkness. Like any good story there is conflict and there is climax. And the Hero comes not in absence of darkness, but in spite of it. Because of it. He comes to shine on those living in a land under the shadow of death. He comes to show us that the Lamb has the heart of a Lion. That love is stronger than hate. That what beats in the chest matters more than what weapon is in the hand.
Darkness and cruelty and the gnashing of teeth are part of the story and we should never shortchange their presence. Their part should be told. For a time they may even claim victory over a battle or two, but –
they never win the war.
Somewhere south of November, I sense an awakening. A stirring as faint as a desperate field mouse nibbling his last tasty morsel. The Light comes anyway. Not because it’s safe. Not because the stable’s antiseptic or the virgin stoic in her certainty. This is the scandal of it all, isn’t it? He comes into the midst of our mixture: our love and our hate, our fear and our confidence, our peace and our war, our already and our not-yet.
He comes gently.
And here in the manger with hay in their hair and the scent of manure in their nostrils, the little family trembles. Because they hear the cry of the lone wolf and feel the chill in north wind and wonder at the unsure footsteps that pound the earth outside the tavern. But the smile that starts in the tired eyes of those two scared kids with a baby between them reaches quietly inside to somehow comfort their deepest fears, like whispered words:
Light does more than come. It overcomes.
Kelli Woodford: I live in the midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with my husband and seven blue-eyed children. We laugh, we play, we fight, we mend; but we don’t do anything that even slightly resembles quiet. Unless it’s listening to our lives, which has proved to be the biggest challenge of them all.
Our first serious snowfall arrived the day before Thanksgiving.
The day began with rain. I left the house early to meet a friend for coffee and prayer, and the rain was already running in rivers. They said the rain would turn to snow mid-morning, yet that is a miracle I am always reluctant to believe without seeing. They were right. At ten in the morning, as I sat writing in one of the third-floor attic bedrooms, the rain turned quietly to snow.
Within minutes the golden-brown leaves still piled on our lawn were dusted with snow. Within an hour, the whole world had changed. Autumn had disappeared, buried beneath a new, wintry world.
My children had an early release from school for the holiday. I was standing at the parlor window, watching for them to come walking the long length of our driveway, when I heard it. A rumble. Like a heavy truck. But the rumble grew and cracked and broke into pieces, and I recognized it for what it was.
Thunder. A long, rolling river of thunder.
Every year since I began writing this website, I have blogged daily during Advent. During the rest of the year, I struggle to post regularly once each week. But those Advent seasons of daily writing have been my favorite seasons. The intensity of those days, the witnessing and the telling, have changed me. They have also changed my life.
I began this discipline of daily Advent blogging because I was desperate. Desperate for something new and good in my life. Desperate for more. I ached and yearned and waited, and I wrote about it. I tried to anchor my own story in The Story. That January I found out I was pregnant. I’d had no idea what I was aching for, but Elsa Spring is, as her name suggests, new and good and as beautiful as a long-anticipated spring.
The second year I was weighed down by a gray post-partum fog. I was sure I had nothing to say. But God showed himself and gave me words. And in January the fog was finally rolled back. I was myself again. I knew happiness again.
The third year, I was sure I couldn’t do it. I had not had time to pre-plan a single post. I kept my eyes wide open, and I scratched out a few words each night. And God showed up. I woke every day feeling empty, and I went to bed every night having been given the story for that day.
In January, my long, vague dream of writing a book crystalized unexpectedly. Just after Epiphany, a book idea dropped, fully formed, into my head. And, in another year, that book will show up in bookstores.
You would be right if you guessed that I approach Advent with not a small amount of fear and trembling.
Advent is a journey. And it changes us. It is a season of quiet beauty and gentle expectation, but it can roll over our lives like thunder. Sit. Watch. Wait. There is no telling what you might see.
Two thousand years ago, the whole world changed. And it goes on changing. There is always, always something new.
This year, I am deep in words for my book. For the first time, I have had to admit that I cannot blog every day of Advent. But I have not wanted to give it up. Instead, I have asked a few of my writer friends to join me here. I’ll be sharing their Advent reflections with you this season. I’ll also be showing up with Saturday book recommendations and a special food-themed Christmas giveaway.
And I pray, however you observe Advent, that it will be as beautiful as the first snowfall of the season. I pray that it will rock the earth beneath your feet like thunder.
I know that the killing freeze arrived later this year because I checked last year’s date in my journal. I understand that the cold air pouring in even as I type is, if anything, overdue, and yet I wish it had held off longer still.
Winter approaches, and I find myself afraid.
Most of the maple leaves have fallen, but the trees still wear a few. They look like dabs of watercolor paint. It is autumn’s last deep breath before the descent of winter’s gray veil.
Last winter was long, and the memory is still heavy. I love snow falling past the window, and I love pulling my children on a sled through the Christmas tree farm, but winter is not only that. Winter is also dark afternoons and ice in the chicken’s water and snow turned to mud.
We have all been sick for weeks, and I keep getting better only to get worse again. The baby’s eyes are red and infected, and our whole house shakes with bone-deep coughs.
I am too weary for bad news, I have kept the radio turned off, but terrible tidings slink in, like that draft around my office window. First there was a text from my friend. Such a devastating loss. A week later there was a phone call from family, and that one was so much worse.
They aren’t my stories to tell. Perhaps they aren’t stories at all. They are ruptures. Faultlines.
But you don’t need the details. I’m afraid you’ve heard them before. You, too, have received a text. You, too, have picked up that phone. These are the things that should never happen.
These are the stories every atheist mentions when he or she says they cannot, cannot believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God.
And I find I have no desire to argue with them. Such things should not happen. My atheist friends are absolutely right about that.
When the text came in, I started praying a prayer I’ve never prayed before. I think every true prayer is given, but the given-ness of this one was more apparent than most.
I prayed Let there be light.
I was still praying that prayer when the phone call came. And now I see no reason to stop. Lord, let there be some light. Dear God, please.
It is a winter prayer, and it beckons me toward spring promises:
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people …
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune.
– Isaiah 65:22-23
I want to believe that these words are true, but I am thinking of two mothers. One labored in vain. One bore a child doomed to misfortune. At least, that is what appears to be so.
But what if death was no more the end than winter is the end? What if these words are yet true for these mothers and their children? All hope seems lost, but maybe that is a lie.
After the cross came an empty tomb in a springtime garden.
Winter is near. They say it will be long and cold. I know for certain that it will be dark. But I also know that on the other side of winter is spring.
On the other side of death is life.