Four brothers: one Day family son, and the men who married three Day daughters.
Generally, time moves consistently and at a measured pace. Each day arrives and passes like the blank squares on the print-your-own calendars I persist in using rather than the app I once downloaded onto my phone.
But there are days.
There are days when all those neat squares swim like the tears in your eyes until the past and the present sit right on top of one another. Then, you are caught. Time passes, but you are snagged on the past. You are like a winter coat dangling all summer long from that hook on the closet door.
I am caught on a winter day almost twenty years ago. I wore a white dress, and my sisters, my bridesmaids, wore green. We gathered in the fellowship room of the church of our childhood. We ate little sandwiches and cake and held white china cups of steaming coffee.
I am caught on a summer day fifteen years ago. The same fellowship room in the same church. My sister Kelli in white this time, our sister Lisa and I in pale gray.
I am caught on another summer day ten years ago. The same room. Lisa in white. Kelli and I in deep red. This time, there was a chocolate fountain.
I had not seen that room until a week ago, Saturday. We buried Shawn that day under an already hot Texas sun. Then, the fellowship room, and one more reception, but this one unimagined, unanticipated. We stood in the same room, our dresses a trio of somber colors. We held steaming cups of coffee, plates full of tiny sandwiches and cake.
Small children tugged on our arms, made it impossible to talk.
Every day, my children ask for ice cream and every day I give them some green vegetable. Last night, I served arugula sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Eager for a second helping of sliced strawberries, my older boy announced that he had finished all of his “kale stuff.”
I love my children, and I long to give them good gifts. Some days I hand out the lollipops. As Elsa’s Uncle Shawn was laid to rest, I unwrapped three lollipops in a row because she would not stop complaining, loudly, about the heat.
They weren’t gifts, they were bribes.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Yet though my children ask for candy, I give them gifts of bittersweet broccoli, caramelized in the heat of the oven. It is my best gift for them.
I give it because they are precious to me.
The problem with being snagged on the past in this way, is that the events of life do not stay in their proper places. Clearly, the weddings were good gifts, and the funeral is a terrible thing, and yet all of it has seemed to merge in my mind.
Ten years ago, I stood in that fellowship room, coffee cup in hand, trying so hard not to cry. I had found out only that morning that the latest round of fertility drugs had not worked. My grief was the same color as the deep red of my bridesmaid dress.
Because I am snagged, I am no longer confident of what has been good and what has been bad. It seems to me now that the empty womb was as much a good gift as the son who will turn ten this summer.
Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?
I will let the mystery be. I will follow the pattern set in the first chapter of James. For after fifteen verses on hardship, we find these words: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:16-17).
God does not change. He is good through and through. Yet we are easily deceived. Time plays its tricks. We feel ourselves to be standing at an end.
Forgetting that we will open our mouths wide.
For this is not the end.
For years, my children have sung the same old tired song. It goes like this: it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.
I used to argue with them. I tried banning those words, altogether. But for the past year or so, I have said only this:
In our house, we don’t do fair. We do love. Do you want fairness or do you want love?
I heard the familiar complaint again as we sat around the dinner table Sunday night. My mind was elsewhere, my body tired, so I let the conversation take it’s course. The kids didn’t argue. They traded ideas with more civility than is typical. But they never could decide what a fair distribution of the baguette might have been. The baguette they had already polished off between them. Four pieces, each? Wait, no, that doesn’t work.
I hesitated before I spoke. I hesitated because I wasn’t sure if it was right to say it. I wasn’t sure if I could say it without tears. But I said it:
Do you think what happened to your cousins in Hawaii was fair?
They looked at me with wide eyes and said, No.
Do you think God loves you more than them?
They lowered their heads. They whispered, No.
No one at the table said anything for a long while. We know the truth, we hold it in our hands like the shell my daughter brought home from the beach, but that doesn’t mean we understand it.
While I was in Hawaii, I heard a young child cry, It isn’t fair.
And she’s right. It isn’t fair.
“Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” Job 21:7
Why would such a good man, such a loving and much-loved man, die young? I don’t know the answer, but I know that the God of heaven and earth is something better than fair. He is love.
So many have asked. How are you? How is your sister? How are the kids? I can only speak for myself, but I think that we are all walking the wild, unfamiliar edges of a very great love.
We are discovering that God’s love is deeper than the great depths of the ocean only a mile off Oahu’s North Shore. We are finding that God’s love is higher than the mountains that climb like great green fingers to a crumbling, volcanic rim. We can see that God’s love is wider even than a rainbow so wide it embraces the horizon.
This loss, this sorrow, is enormous. It stretches out as far as we can see. But, there, too, matching it, overtaking it, is this love.
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” Job 42:3
Every day God gives good gifts. He gives those ordinary miracles of day and night, work and rest, bread and wine and laughter. But, too often, we receive those gifts as if we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. The irony is that when life is good, when life seems easy, too many of us do not feel loved. And we do not feel safe.
I have long believed that life is a journey of love. More and more, I am becoming convinced that some days are for love’s gentleness. Other days for its wildness.
There is evening, and we sleep in love’s quietness. There is morning, and our eyes are opened to love’s vast, almost unfathomable borders.
Today, we are wide awake.
“I am walking every day nearer to the edge. I committed myself almost with a running leap … but there is always this edge running through our lives and our days. … it is the cliff edge between winter and spring. The fault line between death and life. … I am realizing how frequently we are invited to dive into the unknown. To make a flying leap toward light and life and love. How frightening it always is. And how necessary. And also how well cared for we always are, even if we are never, at least not exactly, safe.” – Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky
It is true that we are loved, but it is also true that we are not safe. Not in the way we take that word to mean. Shoes do drop. Suffering knocks on our door, but this isn’t because some cosmic scale has tipped. This isn’t because we have reached the end of God’s goodness. Or of our supply of good gifts.
To have your soul awakened. To have your eyes opened.
Those are also good gifts.
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Job 42:5
If you pray for us, perhaps you might pray for sleep. If wakefulness is a gift, it is one we cannot bear for long. We need at least a few hours when our eyes can close.
We need, sometimes, to forget. We need darkness, especially when, all day long, we cannot seem to stop staring straight into the sun.
photo by Kelli Campbell
“Whether we speak of poems or paintings or places, all art acknowledges an absence and dreams of something other, something more. Art is the material form of hope.”
– Christie Purifoy, Roots and Sky
I did not really know what those words meant when I wrote them.
Today, my family is confronted by a terrible grief and a great absence. My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, is missing at sea. He is a Marine and a pilot, and his aircraft was lost off the coast of Hawaii last Thursday night.
His four young children are waiting for their Daddy to come home. Soon, I will travel to Hawaii to be with them.
I had other words, other stories, planned for these last days before my book is released into the world. Instead, you will most likely find only silence in this online space. I will share any updates on my facebook page and instagram account.
It is likely that many of you will receive my book and begin reading it before I return home to Maplehurst. The only words I would add to the words already written within those pages are these:
The book I wrote is not diminished by this sorrow. It is more true than I knew, and it has become, for me, an anchor outside this grief.
It is, quite literally, the material form of my hope.
If I once thought it was my gift to God then it is a gift he has given back to me. I can hold hope in my hands, even if I fail to see it in these circumstances.
Thank you for your prayers. I speak for so many in my family when I say,
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning: great is your faithfuless.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'”
– Lamentations 3: 19-24
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.
It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world … which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
It is October. Blog posts should come easily right now. Beauty upon beauty spins gently from the maple trees. The world is polished to a coppery shine. Yet I have felt anxious. Tongue-tied.
Virginia Woolf was right about the beauty that is particular to October days. Yes, there is laughter (children diving into piles of leaves, Jonathan and I planting daffodil bulbs together), but there is anguish, too.
For weeks now I have been trying to understand why the beauty of October makes me sad. Has it always been this way? Is it more pronounced this year?
Last spring, I wrote about the beauty of the golden hour. Here at Maplehurst, the whole month of October is golden. There is the glow of all these maple trees, but it is more than that. The light itself has changed. It is rich and thick, like caramel sauce. Or melted butter. Now, even the blue sky has a golden tint.
What is the golden hour? What is this golden, October light?
It is good news from a far country (Proverbs 25:25).
But that country is not yet our possession. It remains just out of reach. During October, it draws near, but it will not stay for long. I never can forget that all these trees will soon be bare.
Perhaps one way we follow in the footsteps of a wounded redeemer is when we do not look away. When we refuse the numbness and distraction of our cellphone or our television show or whatever it is that is so much less beautiful and so much easier to behold.
It isn’t easy to live our lives against the backdrop of rich, ringing gold. The rift between October’s beautiful song and our own tempers and headaches and worries is too great. It would be easier not to look. Not to see.
In October, I understand that I live most of my days with a veil over my eyes.
Will we ever be bold enough to lift our heads towards an October sky and “with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory?” (2 Cor 3:18).
The cost is anguish, but the prize is laughter.
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?