Summer came to an end at approximately five pm on Sunday night.
At five pm on Sunday night, I was sauteeing squash ribbons (that four out of four children would not eat) and flipping cheese quesadillas (that two out of four children would not eat) while hollering at the boys to clean their room and listening to the firstborn debate first-day-of-school outfits.
I was mentally prepping school lunches, signing an emergency-contact form for the oldest, and telling the youngest that now was not a good time for playing in the sink.
The youngest threw herself across the floor while I two-stepped toward the dinner plates.
And there, at utter loose ends in my kitchen, is when I knew summer was over.
Summer may be chaotic and intense, but in summer there is less pressure to chase down every last loose end.
Did we eat popcorn for dinner instead of vegetables? Well, it’s summer. Tomorrow we shall raid the garden.
Did the five-year-old hop into bed with dirty feet? Well, maybe we’ll wash off with a visit to the creek tomorrow.
In Fall, we remember the calendar and the budget and the email inbox.
In Fall, the overgrown garden looks sad rather than abundant. In Fall, the baby’s hair is plastered to her forehead with applesauce instead of sweet baby sweat.
In Summer, loose ends twine like pea vines on lattice. They tempt us to stay up past our bedtimes. They draw us on to look deeply at sunsets and the freckles on our loved one’s nose.
In Fall, loose ends scatter themselves like beads from a broken necklace. We scramble and cry, but we know we will never find them all. We will never manage to gather the details. We will fail to live up to at least a few of our responsibilities.
I long for my own little chore chart. With three neat rows and a gold star for each grid.
But there are no gold stars waiting for me at the end of my email inbox. No gold stars when I have packed three healthy, nut-free, school-approved snacks.
So here is a reminder – for me, for you – to hold on to summer’s lessons.
Let us remember where the gold stars live.
They live in sunsets and freckles.
They live at the ends of every loose strand of a young girl’s hair.
They shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome them.
On Thursday, we said thank you around the table.
We passed the big bowl with potatoes like mountain peaks. We passed the medium-sized bowl with its cranberry jewels. We passed the tiny, wooden bowl. Three times we passed that particular bowl, and three times we tipped in our little kernels of corn. With each kernel came a thank you.
I said thank you for friends, and books, and old maple trees. The little boy said thank you for toys. The bigger boy said thank you for Jesus.
And so we entered Advent on a tidal wave of gratitude, every thank you deeply meant.
But now it is so dark, and gratitude has slipped through my fingers.
Every good gift from this past year seems to have its tarnished edge, and I am weary. Weary of sifting good from bad, blessing from burden.
This old farmhouse is a promise fulfilled. We wandered, but He brought us home. But … the pipes leak, too many old maples were lost in a storm, and this is farming country – some days I can’t breathe for the manure in the air.
The baby is a good and perfect gift. Beautiful. Much loved. With her came depression. Two months of panic and tears. Now I tremble remembering those days and pray God, don’t let that darkness ever come back. And my heart is broken for all who live within that fog for years.
So many dreams are coming true, but they are being realized in dust and dirt and darkness. And some part of me knows the bigger story. It begins in a stable but ends with streets of gold.
There are no streets of gold in my neighborhood. There’s a diaper pail. A filthy chicken coop. Kitchen scraps left to rot.
But I am done with sifting.
Done trying to untangle the knots of good and bad, done naming one thing a gift, another a curse.
I am dust myself, but I breathe with God’s own breath, and I am using that breath to say thank you.
Thank you for all of it.
The mess. The smell. The compost under my nails, and the dishes in the sink.
I say thank you because our God has never despised the dirt, and he once wrapped himself in dust.
He is our God with dirt under his nails, and he is near.
God with us.
Here at Maplehurst, it is the darkest time of year.
Darkness isn’t only a condition on the other side of your window. Sometimes, it is a weight on your chest. Sometimes, it is a fog behind your eyes.
In other words, our walls and windows don’t always keep it out.
Two years ago, I was living in a wilderness. I was so desperate for light and newness I decided to post something – a reflection, a prayer, a poem, a scrap of song – every day of Advent. I knew my own efforts couldn’t make the light dawn any sooner, but I wanted to be ready when it did. I wanted to be there, waiting, with eyes wide open for those first streaks of gold in the eastern sky.
In early January that year, we found out our fourth baby was on the way. And I knew then some of what I’d been waiting for. Born in September, I still think of her as my Advent child. Without even realizing it, I was praying my way to her.
Last year at Advent, I held that same baby in my arms. I rocked her to sleep in my dream-come-true of a farmhouse, but there was something darker in my head than anything I could see through the wavy glass of these old windows. Was it hormones, sleep-deprivation, the unending tasks of moving and setting up a new home? Probably I can blame all of the above and more besides. I felt both completely ill-equipped to blog every day and desperate to mark my steps toward light and hope and the easy burden offered in Jesus.
One more year, and I am standing here again. Looking back, looking ahead.
Once again, I feel too tired. Too busy. Too small. But I also feel grateful. I feel as if something has accrued in these years observing Advent. The circle of the year has not brought me all the way back to the point where I began. These days may be dark, but, if I look honestly, I see how much brighter they are than any I’ve previously known.
Here is the paradox of advent: it is a season of quiet waiting and preparation, but this is quietness like tremors before an earthquake. Because every day is moving us closer to momentous change: the anniversary of a baby’s birth, the second coming of a King.
Yes, it is very dark. All seems still and unchanging. But can you feel the world turning? Can you feel that rushing beneath your planted feet?
At Advent, we return to the beginning (a new year, a baby’s birth), but we are always closer to the end (a wedding supper and a kingdom fully come). Like the movement of our planet, sometimes the swiftest path forward is also a return. And so, I am looking back and pressing on. I am remembering what has been and welcoming what is to come. I am waiting. I am standing still. Dawn is streaming ever closer to eyes open and arms held wide.
And I know this: Someone has come. Someone is coming. And every day brings us more.
I want more.
I want it for myself. I want it for this whole beautiful, broken world.
Advent cannot ever be fully practiced alone. Like the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and their two unborn sons, our hope and expectation are meant to draw us together.
I am doing this again. Advent every day.
Will you join me?
You can find my previous Advent introductions here and here.
Find links to each Advent post on facebook. You can also subscribe and receive each Advent post in your email inbox.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Today, Amy Lepine Peterson returns the favor and shares these powerful reflections with us. There is so much wisdom here, I’m taking my time, reading and rereading. These are words I know I need right now.
Thank you, Amy.
Advent is a season of darkness, of waiting for the light; but I’m warier of darkness than I used to be.
When I was a teenager, I revelled in darkness. I don’t mean that I loved bad things. I loved complicated things, facing the realities of our broken world, anything that seemed deeper and truer than the sparkly cliches I found on tv and in commercial christian products. My teens were when I read Thomas Hardy and Pascal and Kierkegaard, when intellectual doubts were hitting me for the first time, when I first traveled to a third world country and recognized the excess of my own lifestyle. I was in my teens when Dad took me to see Good Will Hunting – despite the language – because of the redemptive themes, and I too wanted to recognize truth like a troubled genius or a holy rebel. I needed a faith that was honest about darkness.
Becoming a mother was what changed me. I first noticed it when I was pregnant with Rosemary. Jack and I started to watch The Road one night- a film based on Cormac McCarthy’s post- apocalyptic vision of a father and son traveling across a barren earth. Though the movie had been hailed as important, haunting, and powerful, and though its bleak, true-eyed vision was something I would have loved in my late teens, I couldn’t make it through even the first half of the film. As a parent, it was too harrowing to watch, and I wanted to sleep instead.
Once your own children enter the picture, the reality of darkness in the world easily becomes overwhelming, your potential for distress growing exponentially with each child you bear.
To be honest, I don’t want to talk here about what happened in Connecticut last week. I can hardly bear to acknowledge that it exists or to read the names of the children who died. I haven’t read a single news story about it all the way through, and I haven’t watched even one news clip, not just because I’m generally suspicious of the reliability and motives of the press, but also because I can’t manage, emotionally, to let myself imagine how those parents feel.
Tonight before bed, I read to my almost-4-year-old from the Jesus Storybook Bible. We read this, based on Acts 1:
Jesus’ friends and helpers huddled together in a stuffy upstairs room. Even though it was sunny outside, the shutters were closed. The door was locked.
“Wait in Jerusalem,” Jesus had told them, “I am going to send you a special present. God’s power is going to come into you. God’s Holy Spirit is coming.”
So here they were. Waiting. Actually, mostly what they were doing was just being scared and hiding. (You can’t blame them — their best friend had left; the Important People and Leaders were after them; and Jesus had given them a job they didn’t know how to do.)
As they waited, they were praying and remembering — remembering how, from the beginning, God had been working out his Secret Rescue Plan.
I wondered as I read: how much of what I do is just “being scared and hiding,” waiting, in this long Advent season, for the Secret Rescue Plan to be completed, hoping I make it through unscathed? Although for me, unlike for the disciples, the Holy Spirit has already come, already made my heart burn within me, I still cower in fear when faced with the realities of a world in need of resurrection. I know about this Secret Rescue Plan, and I’ve been assured of its success. The Prince of Darkness grim? – one little word shall fell him. I ought not to tremble.
And yet my fear is legitimate; after last week, there’s no denying that even our safest places are vulnerable, that the “control” I think I have over my life is illusory.
So how do I, with my tender mother-heart, open up again to face the realities of a complex world, where the End is certain, but in the meantime, the ways can be inscrutable? How can I embrace the spirit of love, rather than the spirit of fear? How can I trust God enough to face the suffering of the world – and the potential of suffering for my own little ones – with clear eyes and an open heart?
I know that I need to face the darkness head on and ready to fight. Taking comfort in shiny happy cliches and ignoring reality may feel good for a season, but ultimately helps no one, ultimately turns me into one of the shallow “phonies” that Holden Caufield and I used to despise.
Leaning into the meaning of Advent means remembering that our hearts have to be split in order to open wider. And leaning into the meaning of Advent means believing that because a baby was born, there is a promise that if we lean into the suffering of the world instead of protecting against it, we find love. This is a long wait, but we’re not waiting alone.
I don’t have to watch The Road. But I think I do have to watch Half the Sky. I have to begin by being willing to see the brokenness of the world, and then I have to be ready to fight against the darkness. I have to combat the urge to construct a “safe” life. I have to be willing to acknowledge the brokenness of the world, not just intellectually, but emotionally, if I’m going to be able to help usher a new and better kingdom in.
We wait, this long Advent, for that kingdom to arrive, but we must wait with honest eyes and willing hands, practicing resurrection in the dark.
Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, and spends most of her time making a home for her best-friend-husband and their two (frankly adorable) children. You can find her in the cornfields of Indiana, or online at Making All Things New.