“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.
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
Yesterday, there was softly falling snow. Today, there is a hard rain hurling itself against the windowpane.
In my ears, the quiet shush of snow has always sounded like the voice I most want to hear. It has always seemed like the embrace of the One who is so often hidden from us.
But if the snow whispers I Am, this rain screams Why? Why? Why?
It is the unanswerable question the world keeps on asking. Why do terrible things happen? Why did this terrible thing happen?
To be honest, it’s a question I don’t want answered. At least not yet. If there is an answer, I know that I am not ready to hear it. The only question I feel able to ask is this: what happens next?
What comes after the nightmare?
The answer I’ve considered this week has surprised me. I am not sure why that is when I have felt it before. For me, what comes after the nightmare is a strange sort of peace.
I once watched my son begin to die in a suburban Florida frozen yogurt shop. Two bites in to his dairy-free frozen treat and some trace contamination caused his throat to swell shut. I realized what was happening in the same second that I realized I had forgotten to carry his epi-pen.
A stranger in that shop saved my son’s life when she pulled an epi-pen junior from her purse. She had curly, red hair and two kids by her side. I struggled to uncap the pen because my hands would not stop shaking.
My son recovered so quickly he didn’t even need to ride in the ambulance that arrived a few minutes later. But it took me longer to recover. It took a long time for my hands to stop shaking and an even longer time to realize that all the fear I had carried since my son’s first allergic reaction was gone.
I felt sad and guilty and shaky, but I was no longer afraid. I understood that I could never keep my son perfectly safe. I understood that life and death are so much bigger than I am. So much bigger even than the love a mother has for her child, and that both, life and death, are held in someone else’s hands.
Today, again, I am sad and shaky. Today, again, I feel guilty. Before, I felt guilty and ashamed because I had risked my son’s life through forgetfulness. Now, though I recognize it isn’t logical, I feel guilty that I still have a husband. That my children still have a father in their house.
But I am not afraid.
I no longer think that losing my husband or even my child to death would be the end of me. I could lose even this house, this hilltop where I have planted so much of myself, and still go on. I have seen how it is possible to smash into a thousand pieces yet remain, not happy, certainly, not well, or whole, but held. Sustained. I have seen how God carries us through the very thing we imagine we cannot endure.
It is written, “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). I have read those words and imagined this love like something familiar, something sweet like the candy hearts my children have been eating for days. But fear is powerful. Enormous. It takes a very big love to drive it out.
I don’t know if this love causes terrible things.
I don’t know if this love allows terrible things.
All I know is I cannot look at the terrible thing without also seeing love.
I hate the sound of this driving rain. I don’t like the questions it is stirring up. But though I still long for the comforting blanket of yesterday’s snow, I am grateful for any rain that washes all my fears away.
I am grateful to be where I am. Here, in the churning, foaming center of a great river of peace.
Recently, someone wrote a blog post about a terrible injustice happening in our world.
I hear your deep sigh of recognition. Who wrote the post? What was the injustice? You know it almost doesn’t matter.
Aren’t our facebook feeds and blog readers and twitter accounts spilling over with painful stories of injustice? There is so much darkness. In our own small towns. In our own familiar cities. And in countries so far away we sometimes forget that they are more than just the names we hear repeated on the radio news.
When this blog post popped up in my email inbox, I read the title and then quickly shut my laptop. I told myself, I do not want to feel this. I cannot handle any more grief. Any more anger.
Especially when there is nothing I can do.
My daughter has been learning about the Holocaust. What began as a teacher-assigned classroom project has shifted into a personal obsession. Her bedroom walls are pale pink, there is still a doll on the center of her bed, but the bedside table is stacked with The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
After a difficult beginning, she has been processing it all fairly well. Stories of heroes and rescuers, especially, are helping her navigate the deep waters of our history.
But I am not doing so well.
It is a terrible thing to watch a child’s eyes being opened. Opened to terror. To darkness. To some brokenness in our world that began, I suppose, with Cain and Abel but simply Will. Not. Quit.
She would like to visit the Holocaust museum. I’ve told her no. Not yet. It is possible that she could handle it, but I feel sure that I cannot.
Is it ever okay to look away? To close the laptop? Plug up our ears? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I’m not really sure.
I did go back and read that blog post. It was as horrific as I had imagined, but there was also a clear call to action. There was a way for people to help, and many responded with a yes.
As I confronted my own feelings of powerlessness, I remembered that no one who prays is powerless.
I may never be able to rush around the world dispensing sure-thing solutions, but I can pray. And that is not a little thing.
Even prayer gives me hope. I have seen, again and again, that when we feel a tug to pray then God is already at work. He is the source of that tug. It is his invitation to join him in the great and beautiful thing he is already doing.
And as overwhelmed as I am, as weak as I feel, I hope I never say no to that.
My daughter’s eyes have been opened. But they have been opened to more than darkness. She is beginning to recognize the seed that has been planted inside of her: the seed of a rescuer. A lover of justice. A champion for rightousness.
Her mother is not those things. You do not want me to lead your campaign.
I am an observer. Once, I might have written that I am only an observer. But I have come to understand that those of us watching, quietly, from the edges, we are the ones who, when the moment is right, climb the high mountain and shout the good news of what we have seen: “Here is your God!” (Is 40:9)
We are unique, and our responses to suffering will be unique.
But may our prayer always be the same:
“… let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).
There is a river. How does that stream flow through you?
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.
Some beginnings are brown. There is nothing fresh or new about them.
Take autumn, for instance. In my mind, it begins with the first gilded edge on the giant magnolia tree. In my mind, it begins with the weeping willow’s coppery sheen.
Apparently, my mind is wrong. Has been wrong for all these years. Because autumn is beginning, and it is brown.
It is brown where the seed pods rattle in the flowerbeds. It is brown where the first leaves have fallen and turned crispy. They were overeager. They could not wait for their orange or red transformation. The reward for their impatience is to be mistaken for dull oak leaves rather than the vivid maples they are.
Some have asked how the book writing is progressing. I tell them all the same thing. I tell them I have written a lot of words, and I despise every one of them.
The response to my honesty has been, universally, a wide-eyed look of concern. I appreciate the concern. It draws out the nurturer in me. I want to pat each friend on the hand, I want to pat myself on the hand, and say, “There, there. I think it will be okay. It is only that some beginnings are brown.”
Beginnings rarely make a clean break with endings. The two are usually muddled together.
It can all be a bit discouraging without eyes to see. I am praying for eyes to see.
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)
Do not dwell on the past.
What relief there is in those words. How light is their burden.
Light enough that we are able to keep walking. Perhaps even with a spring in our step, which, as you know, is a sign of anticipation. We know we are closer.
Every day brings us closer to that place where the water runs fast and clear.