During Advent twelve years ago, I was newly pregnant and very afraid.
I should have remembered the angel’s proclamation to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Instead, because I had waited so long and with so much agony for this second child to be conceived, the news of a growing baby felt too good to be true. I became convinced that my child would be born with serious health problems.
My prayers had been answered, but I dimly sensed there must be some price to pay.
I had suffered just enough to stop believing in good news and gifts freely offered.
The good news of this season is God’s nearness. A son has been born to us, and his name is God-with-us.
The good news is that the God who came near has promised to return. Advent is that season when we pinch ourselves awake, we rub the sleep from our eyes, and we remember to watch and wait.
“A light shines in the darkness,” and despite everything–everything— we’ve seen, we believe the “darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
My son Thaddeus was born at bright noon on my very own birthday. He was healthy and strong, and I held in my arms the answer God had been whispering to me for months: This son is a good gift. No strings attached.
That was the good news, and it was absolutely true. Yet my grip on it slipped as Thaddeus grew.
He had his first serious allergic reaction at six months old. It was Christmas Eve.
We used the epi-pen and drove him to the hospital for the first time when he was two.
We did the same when he was three.
When he was four, I took him out for a treat and forgot to bring his epi-pen. A stranger with an epi-pen in her purse saved my son’s life.
I remember once standing with an exhausted doctor in a hospital corridor. We were both watching Thaddeus, lying so swollen and so still in that enormous hospital bed, and I asked, “Will he grow out of it?”
The doctor sighed, his eyes never leaving my little boy. I waited.
“Normally, I would say yes. But I’ve never seen a reaction like his. How could a little processed-cheese dust cause this?”
Through a decade of constant vigilance and fear that was still, too often, not good enough, I prayed for my son.
Heal him. Please.
But every single time I prayed, the same few words would drop—like a stone—in my heart:
He is already healed.
I never knew what to do with that stone. Some days I believed the good news: already healed. But the good news couldn’t fully erase the fear that we would make another mistake, miss something, forget something.
And the good news seemed to offer little to a boy who ate his lunch alone at the “peanut-free table” and cried after every class party: I just want to eat what all the other kids eat.
I can’t remember when we first decided to let him try dairy. Two years ago? A year? I know he asked for a long, long while before we said yes. I can’t even remember what we fed him. Was it a muffin baked with a little bit of butter? Or was it a waffle made with a small amount of buttermilk?
I’ve forgotten how it began, but I remember the culmination: cheesy homemade pizza on a Friday night. We let him try one bite. We kept his epi-pen on the counter. We made him wait twenty minutes before another bite, and we peppered him with questions:
How do you feel? Is there any scratchiness in your throat? What about now? Does your mouth itch? What about now?
He ate one whole piece of pizza that night, but we still took it slow. The light of that good news announced for years to every one of my prayers was dawning, but Jonathan and I covered our eyes.
We were afraid, I think, to look directly at the thing we had always desired.
This year, our son has eaten cookies and cakes baked with butter. He has eaten cookies and cakes baked with milk. Twice, he ate a cupcake frosted with butter frosting. Once, he sprinkled parmesan cheese on his soup, and I didn’t stop him.
On Thanksgiving Day, we realized too late we’d forgotten to buy almond milk. We made the mashed potatoes, Thaddeus’s favorite food, with real milk, real cream, and real butter.
That night, having had no reaction to the potatoes, Thaddeus ate his first slice of apple pie with real whipped cream.
“I like it,” he said, in a quiet voice.
A week or so ago, I realized we were out of the almond milk Thaddeus has always used on his Cheerios and his oatmeal. Jonathan would be heading to the grocery store that day, but as I wrote up a list for him, I couldn’t decide whether to add almond milk.
The only thing we had not yet tried giving Thaddeus was pure milk. I knew in my mind he could have it. He ate whipped cream! I knew he had outgrown his milk allergy, but over all these years, I have grown accustomed to doubt and fear.
The last time Thaddeus took a sip of milk, he was three, and it was a glass meant for his sister, and the whole nightmare ended with a bloody mark on his pants from the epi-pen and a trip to the hospital.
My pen hesitated until, finally, I wrote: almond milk (do we need to buy more?).
Maybe Advent is the long, slow leaning in toward the good news we do believe. Maybe Advent is a gradual waking up.
The good news we have waited for has been announced in our lives. I have seen the evidence with my own eyes. My much-loved boy is no longer allergic to milk, and this year, for the first time, he and I will share a birthday cake made with real milk and real butter.
But when I think about pouring him a glass of milk, my hand starts shaking with old memories and old fears, and I can’t do it.
I haven’t yet done it.
When Jonathan brought the groceries home, I saw the familiar box of almond milk amidst the bananas and the avocados.
“You bought more almond milk,” I said to him.
It was a statement.
It was a question.
Jonathan looked at me. He didn’t say anything until he finally looked away.
“It feels good just to have it in the house,” I said, and he nodded.
We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for Christ’s return.
But maybe we’re also waiting on ourselves. Gently and with patience.
Because the good news is a bright light, and our eyes are weak. Our hearts still a little fearful. And maybe we need to hear, just one more time, what Mary heard not so long ago:
The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.
A week ago Friday, Maplehurst’s kitchen was the scene of a pizza party.
Rice flour crusts turned crisp in the oven while puffy dough rested on the counters. Oregano snipped from the pot on the steps turned tomatoes, garlic, and oil into more than the sum of their parts. We sliced fresh mozzarella on one board. We scattered dairy-free cheese substitute on another. We browned sausage from Axel, our local farmer, in the cast-iron skillet.
We baked and sliced and baked again as seven children held out their hands for more.
The pizzas were delicious, but that doesn’t explain the looks on the faces of two mothers who hovered near the table.
“He’s never shared pizza with a friend,” she whispered.
“Never,” I said.
The kitchen table.
It’s a symbol of hospitality. Of togetherness and community. Except, for us, it’s the place where fear draws up a seat. The table doesn’t bridge the divide. It reinforces it.
We say no to potlucks. We decline the invitation to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. If we say yes to the birthday party, I bake our own pizza and cupcakes ahead of time.
We don’t often say yes.
A young girl in California is given three injections with the epi-pen but dies anyway. Fear scores one more point.
Always there is another reason to be afraid.
In the daily sifting of life (this is good, this is bad), life-threatening food allergies are our constant Bad Thing.
The pizza party came during the week we hosted good friends, a mother with two daughters and a son. Our big girls were once babies together in Chicago. Their family left the city soon after that, but our lives have run on parallel tracks ever since. Epi pens and questions. Fear and hives. Uncertain blood tests and frighteningly close calls.
Most importantly, we share little boys. One has a grin slightly wider than the other, but they both carry medicines and their own packed food wherever they go.
This shared Bad Thing brought us together for a week, but it turns out Good and Bad can’t be sifted so neatly.
Our week together was perfect summer weather and long drives over green hills past storybook farms. Our week was three little girls laughing and noisy, nightly sleepovers. It was a week of good conversations. Of childish voices singing together during our own at-home Sunday morning service. We swam in the creek. We visited a new Amish farmstand every day.
And the food! Two ears of corn for each person at the table. Watermelon for breakfast, afternoon snack, and dessert. Garden squash even the children enjoyed (the secret? Julienne into matchsticks and cook it up in a pancake).
We ate Japanese fried chicken and ribs cooked on the grill. We dipped spring rolls fried in coconut oil into a no-sugar-needed apricot sauce. We licked our fingers over garlicky green beans, and we smiled over a rainbow of tomatoes dusted with salt and cracked pepper.
I don’t think a week like this would be possible if we handled our fears well. I don’t think it would happen if we tucked them neatly out of sight.
I think we arrived at this week because we felt the full weight of fear on our backs, but we kept on walking. We acknowledged our fear but asked, “Isn’t there more?”
It turns out there is more. Much more.
I’m no longer so confident about naming the good and the bad in my life. What do I know, really? I know that food allergies are terrifying but pizza shared with a friend is the most delicious pizza around, whether or not the cheese is real.
I think even a life lived in the valley of the shadow of death can be beautiful. I don’t fully understand this. I may never be able to explain it or account for it. But I am grateful.
“… the rising sun will come to us from heaven / to shine on those living in darkness / and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Just the other night, I sat on the front porch and wished I had a sweater. The calendar may still say August, but, around here, summer is definitely tipping over into fall. Our weekly delivery from the local CSA orchard is shifting more and more from peaches to apples.
My daughter says, “I smell fall!” I tell her, “I can hear it,” curled, yellow leaves crunching under my feet.
During our two years in Florida, I missed autumn most of all. We still had summer (beautiful but long). There was spring, just more gradual and gentle than any northern spring. Our first year there we even had a winter, of sorts. But there is no autumn in Florida.
Each season has something important to say. Right now, the world is still very green, but, when the wind blows and the air suddenly fills with yellow leaves, this truth is revealed: there is no escaping death.
This is a season for dying.
It’s also my favorite season.
Maybe that’s because it tells me that death is a lie. We may imagine death as the end, but in fall we know that this dying is leading us toward a blaze of glory. In dying, we are walking toward beauty.
Our new home is beautiful. In the evenings we go for drives through a vibrant green, rumpled-quilt sort of landscape. There are creeks, tunnels formed by trees, old stone, Quaker farmhouses at every crossroads, and road signs that say, “Caution! Horses and hounds.”
We drive for the beauty, but, in honesty, we also drive to put our 3-year-old to sleep. Put him in a bed and he’ll stay awake for hours. Put him in a carseat, no matter the time of day, and he’s snoring within minutes.
A sleep-deprived preschooler isn’t my only frustration. There are also allergies. And asthma, that same nemesis that kept me bed-bound all last winter in Florida.
Nearly every breath I’ve taken in this new place has hurt. The baby doesn’t wake me up at night, but the coughing does. And I wonder, why this serpent in my Eden?
But, if death is a liar, so is trouble of every kind. Sickness, disappointment, difficulty: they all say God is not so good.
Here is something wonderful about having walked through deserts and having enjoyed the good, green places: Paul’s words in Philippians 4 finally make some sort of sense.
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
He is the secret. Our God of peace.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if this jar of clay has failing lungs. It is Christ who lives in me. Lives!
And nothing touches me without passing through his hands.
So I can live unafraid. I can live grateful.
About a month ago, one of my closest friends had a dream. She wandered down a long, long driveway to find a house for sale. As she explored the property, she decided it was just the right house for us. The wind whispered in the tops of the trees, and it sounded like the word “jubilee.”
In eastern Pennsylvania, we drive down a long, long driveway to explore an old red-brick farmhouse. The owner has left a printout of the home’s history on the desk in the parlor. Reading it, I discover that the man who bought the property about 50 years ago was named Charles Day. I imagine telling my father, Mark Day, and my son, Thaddeus Day, that this house is returning to the family.
We make an offer. We try not to let our hopes rise to impossible heights. We mostly fail.
We walk the quaint downtown just a few miles from the house. Jonathan picks up a flier. In September the local golf and country club is hosting a benefit for children’s food allergy research. It feels like a sign. Your son will be safe here.
That’s when we spot another sign; large, lettered, and solidly real: “Gluten-free Bakery,” it says. We push open the door, hear the jingle of the bell, and wonder, “Gluten-free, maybe, but can they also handle dairy-free?”
We taste the most delicious gluten-free, dairy-free rolls we’ve ever had. Vicky shows me baguettes. Pizza crusts. Tell us they deliver bread to neighborhood restaurants. We can take our boy just down the street for a hamburger with bun. He’s never sat in a restaurant and eaten bread. Never.
Then. Oh, then. I almost cry. Unprompted, Vicky wipes the rice flour from her apron and says, “We can make birthday cakes. Gluten-free, dairy-free. Birthday cakes and cupcakes.”
She doesn’t know about the last cake. All those special ingredients. All the time. For a shared birthday cake that looked lovely and tasted awful. Not even the six-year-old, accustomed to the taste of rice flour and bean flour, liked that cake.
“Where are we?” I ask Jonathan. “What is this place?” Both of us with eyes wide.
It’s time to eat. We decide to skip the hamburger place. We can always go there with the kids, we know. Let’s try the Italian. We’ve never stepped foot in an Italian restaurant as a family, know we never will.
Jonathan opens his menu and says, “Look.”
I stretch my neck, see where he points. “What kind of small town is this? A u-pick apple orchard a few minutes in one direction, a gluten-free bakery a few minutes in the other. What is this place? Heaven on earth for the Purifoys?”
The menu says proudly, “We serve gluten-free pasta!”
Maybe, just maybe, this place is home.
Unless this is your first visit to my blog, you know that I’ve been in waiting mode almost since the day, two years ago, when we arrived in Florida. One of the very first posts I wrote was called On Waiting.
Two years ago, I didn’t know what I was waiting for. And, sometimes, waiting is like that. It is a heavy weight. An ache. A question: what now?
But God was present in the waiting. Every day there was water seeping from desert rocks. Food dropped, fully-prepared, on the desert floor.
Occasionally, I even spotted the cloud by day and the fire by night. Spring wildfire season in Florida meant that once we followed a narrow column of smoke the whole twenty-minute drive from our church to our house. Another evening, we followed a full moon made blood-red by reflected fire. That fiery moon hovered in the center of our ash-covered windshield for the long, long drive from a downtown theater to our home. Whoever said that metaphors aren’t as solidly real as flesh, blood, and bread? Those old Bible stories are still alive, you know.
God has been water and bread, fire and cloud for us. And, slowly, so slowly, he filled in the emptiness of waiting with vision. I still waited, but I could see something of what it was that I waited for. This waiting was less desperate but more impatient.
Even hopeful, expectant waiting is difficult. I have wearied of the waiting. I wearied of it long before I knew how heavy it would become.
This winter I got sick. Florida’s pollen season came early and fiercely, and my lungs failed. I spent weeks lying still beside my bedroom air-purifier focusing on each breath. On the worst day, the day that found me back on the doctor’s examining table desperate for new asthma drugs, I found out that I was pregnant. Such surprising, beautiful news, but it was hard to hold on to my belief in an unseen baby while my body tumbled down into an even darker hole. Now nausea and exhaustion kept me pressed into my pillow more tightly than even the asthma.
And I waited. For hope. For healing. For breath.
I waited for God to show up, and I expected fireworks. I imagined an end to my waiting something like a switch clicking from dark to light. When will he come, I wondered. Tomorrow? The next day? How long, Lord, how long?
This morning I sat in the lovely light of a college chapel for a presentation on lament. Lament like that of Psalm 13: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
I’m in Michigan for a writer’s conference, and it feels strange and beautiful to be enjoying again the midwestern spring. Daffodils and tulips. Redbuds and soft, green grass. Unfortunately, the beauty also means that Florida’s pollen has followed me northward. In the busyness of travel I forgot to take my little, pink asthma pill. During my first day at the conference I could never quite escape the pain in my chest and the breathless anxiety that is like a sharp, metallic taste in my mouth. I remembered the pill this second day, and I could enjoy, a little more easily, the cool, wet wind and the rainy sidewalks plastered with petals.
One of the presenters in this session on lament, a songwriter, asked his audience of writers to sing. And, so, I found myself breathing out these words, my own tune-less voice supported by all the voices around me: “The One who gives me breath. He is my Shepherd. I shall never be in want. I shall never be in want.”
The One who gives me breath.
He is my Shepherd.
While I waited for fireworks, for the coming of God like thunder and lightning, my Shepherd slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought me from a sickbed to a chapel filled with the light of a midwestern spring. He did this so that I could know: He is the one who gives me breath. I shall never be in want.
Perhaps my waiting isn’t over, but I know that it is ending. One seed planted in darkness and emptiness is now a fully-formed child, prodding me from within. And I believe that this new life is not the only seed that God has planted in these waiting years.
The true end of my waiting will be, I think, like the coming of spring itself. Subtle. Slow. Until I find myself singing a God-given song and wonder, “When did this happen? How did I get here?”
“How long, Lord? … How long will you hide your face from me? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.”