Remember This: There is Glory in the Dirt

Last week, it snowed here at Maplehurst. Even after ten years lived in Chicago, I don’t think I have ever seen so much snow fall all at once. Granted, I left Chicago for Florida the winter before the once-in-a-decade, cars-stranded-on-Lakeshore Drive monster storm.

I remember that winter well. It was my first in Florida. Everyone I knew – neighbors at the bus stop, new friends at church – kept saying the same thing. Aren’t you glad you don’t live there anymore?

Which only made me want to cry. Because, no. The answer was no. I did wish I was there. In the snow. With my friends. In a place that felt like home.

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chill

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But now I feel at home again, although in a new place, and there is snow, and I am grateful. Crazy-eyed from the pileup of canceled-school days and disruptions to my cherished daily routines, but still grateful.

The evening after our Pennsylvania nor’easter, I looked out the window just after sunset. I saw what looked like a deep and rising sea of snow. I could even point out small windblown waves. As darkness blurred the edges of everything, those waves began to rise and fall. And creep higher. Deeper. Or, they seemed to. I felt the irrational worry that seawater would soon be seeping in around the window frames.

It was strange and startling. It was also beautiful.

Twenty-four hours later, our long driveway had finally been cleared. I walked the length of it, from front porch to mailbox, and decided the scene looked just like a wedding cake. Thick white frosting smoothed to perfection, and a driveway sliced cleanly away.

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I tend to see the world in layered images like these. The result of a lifetime of reading, I suppose. The trick, I’m discovering, is holding on to both. Acknowledging the truth of both.

Snow-covered field and rising floodwaters. A freshly-plowed driveway and a slice of wedding cake.

Maplehurst is like this, too. It is an old, gracious, crumbling-a-bit-around-the-edges house. It is the scene of our daily happiness and daily headaches. The place where children laugh, and I yell at them to take their fun outside. Outside! I say. You can scream at your brother all you like just please don’t do it under my feet while I’m cooking dinner!

Yes, I’m afraid you’ll hear exactly that every day at 5 pm.

Maplehurst is also our dream-come-true. In spiritual terms, it is a fountain. A blessing. The one place on earth that, for me, is nearest to the throneroom of God. There is a river and it flows straight through an avenue of old maple trees.

It is both, and I must see both.

The spiritual reality is likely the most important, the most real, but I can’t let it crowd out the rest. If I’m going to write honestly and live honestly, I can’t forget the ground beneath my feet. I can’t forget what 5 pm feels like.

And it isn’t only honesty at stake. It is also love. If I am going to love my neighbor well, I can’t stop seeing the dirtiness of my own patch of dirt. I can’t forget that we are all together in this land of muddy snow and headaches and 5 pm yelling.

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5 pm is still quite a few hours away. In the freshness of a quiet morning (the children have finally returned to school, the baby is happy and miraculously occupied with toys too big to be a choking hazard), something new occurs to me. Maybe, the trick is not learning to hold on to two true things. Maybe, there aren’t two realities: one spiritual, the other temporal. Maybe there is only the one. Maybe I must learn to see without splitting everything in two.

Maybe, there is glory in the dirt.

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“I am mountain, I am dust

Constellations made of us

There’s glory in the dirt

A universe within the sand

Eternity within a man

We are ocean, we are mist

Brilliant fools who wound and kiss

There’s beauty in the dirt

Wandering in skin and soul

Searching, longing for a home.”

–          from “I am Mountain,” by Michael Gungor and Lisa Gungor

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melt

 

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Advent (Day 18): We Have Seen Fire in This Place

There is Advent on this blog. And there is Advent in my home.

Advent on the blog is, I like to think, serene. Advent at home? Less so.

Here is a confession: I have everything it takes to be a good mother. Unfortunately, those qualities consistently abandon me during the tired edges of the day. Which means I only have what it takes when ¾ of my children are at school, and the last little quarter is asleep in her crib.

Translation: I do not have what it takes.

 

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So far, our family Advent observance has been … impressive. At least, I’ve been impressed. Most nights we have sat down together to light candles and read a devotion. I can’t take the credit. The whole thing is due entirely to the friend (angel, really) who gave us a complete Jesse Tree collection the first Sunday of Advent. We had everything handed to us: beautifully crafted ornaments for each day, a printout of Ann Voskamp’s family devotional (tied up in green silk ribbon), even a large glass vase. We supplied a bare branch from our yard, and we were in business.

But the wait for Christmas is long and heavy, and our observance has cracked a bit around the edges. Well, worse than that, really. I may have exploded one recent evening after yet another argument over who would hang the ornament. I may have called the whole thing off and sent them to bed. One of them crying those enormous, guilt-inducing crocodile tears.

And yet, Monday night somehow found us gathered, again, around our Jesse tree. I wasn’t optimistic. I was tired. When I glimpsed the evening’s reading – 2 ½ pages from the book of I Kings?! From an obscure story about idol worship?! – I panicked.

I was this close to shutting the book up again and announcing a change of plans. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read the whole thing while children fought and pestered me with questions like Who is Baal? What is a prophet? They did what to the animals??

But a fight over who was or was not touching someone’s favorite ornament on the tree threatened to boil over so I did the only thing I could.

I started reading.

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Do you know the story?

There is a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Baal’s followers prepare an altar and a sacrifice. Then they spend hours calling on their god to set the thing on fire. They shout. They dance. They prophesy franticly. They even slash themselves until the blood flows.

Here is the eloquence of Scripture: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

At this point in the reading, I had the full attention of my children. They sat mesmerized. It was as if we could see that frantic, bloody dancing. It was as if we could hear the deafening silence of heaven.

I kept reading.

Elijah sets up the stones and the wood for his own altar. He douses it in water. And more water. There is so much water, and the impossibility is doubled. Tripled.

Elijah prays: “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

We sat – each of us – with eyes large and breath caught – until: the God of Fire came.

He heard. He came. And there was fire.

“The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!”

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advent angels

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Making space for God’s presence in my home feels about as back-breaking as hauling stones. My husband and I stack those stones while little people bicker around our ankles. Too often, their bickering is contagious.

I lose my temper. I can’t take even one more thing. Not one more mess. Not one more argument. Until, I have filled our home, our altar of stones, with so much water. An impossible flood of water.

Making space for God’s presence in my home is also a free gift. It is a beautiful and complete family advent collection handed to me by a friend.

It asks nothing of me. Requires nothing of me.

It is an impossible mess, and it is grace, and my children and I have seen fire.

Because God came.

Because God always will come.

 

 

Advent (Day 7): These Farmhouse Bookshelves

Saturdays are reserved for a peek at the bookshelves which fill so many rooms in this old farmhouse. Books live everywhere here.

This month, this Advent month, I’ll be sharing some of our favorite books for the season. Advent books. Christmas books. Wintery and snowy books. These are books that live most of the year in two big boxes in a third-floor closet. I lug these boxes down two flights of stairs before I ever even look for the Christmas decor.

Mostly, these are books for kids. Or the kid in each of us (a self we simply must indulge this time of year, in my opinion). Quite possibly, these books are loved more by me than by any child in my house. Although, considering the state of it, Jan Brett’s Gingerbread Baby is well loved by all.

 

(You can find my full series of book recommendations here, including more information about my personal book review policy and a disclaimer about affiliate links.)

for the season

 

I love Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation year round. I love it especially at Advent.

Shaw’s poems hit that magic mark for me. They are conversational yet lyrical. They are accessible, but they do not give up all of their secrets with one reading. These are poems to return to year after year.

This is a season of serial visions, and a bodily God, / and a sword in the heart. – Luci Shaw

Astrid Lindgren is the Swedish writer best known for her books featuring Pippi Longstocking. Christmas in Noisy Village (Picture Puffin), part of a series of picture books about the “noisy children,” is a family favorite. Really, this is the Holy Grail of children’s literature: a book that pleases parents, toddlers, early readers … even my soon-to-be “tween.”

This is a fairly straightforward telling of a child’s Christmas in rural Sweden, but there is magic in realism like this. Gingersnap pigs, an early-morning sleigh ride to church, and gifts of skis and skates.

We have bigger books, funnier books, more spiritual books, but, this time of year, we probably read this book more times than any other. (Bonus recommendation: Lindgren’s The Tomten is a wintery classic. One of our all-time family favorites.)

‘Everything is so beautiful and Christmasy that it gives me a stomach-ache,’ said Anna.

I’m sad to see that this third recommendation appears to be out-of-print. However, it looks like you should be able to track down a copy without too much trouble. Little One, We Knew You’d Come is a sentimental favorite of mine. This is the story of the nativity, yes, but it is also a lullaby and a love song for every parent and child.

Sally Lloyd-Jones is well known for The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. This is a quieter, more poetic take on the story of Jesus. I’m not sure my children even know it is a book about Jesus. They each think it’s a book about them. And they are right.

Lloyd-Jones beautifully captures the longing and love parents feel for their children. It is the longing felt by all creation for her redeemer.

And every year, we remember you, / Our miracle child, our dreams come true. / Oh, how we thank Heaven for you, / And the day that you were born. – Sally Lloyd-Jones

Lastly, I have one bonus recommendation: Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite. I’ve mentioned my love for these poems before, but, if possible, I love them even more this time of year.

 

Advent (Day 4): O These Many Holy Nights

“… the weary world rejoices …”

We are baking together, the little boy and I, but I am also listening to the radio.

It is 75 years since the kindertransport brought German Jewish refugee children to England. An elderly man is speaking. He was only seven when he boarded that train. Only seven when his mother and father made a promise they would not be able to keep. They promised they would join him.

He still has the small hairbrush his mother tucked into his case.

I am listening to the refined voice of this now elderly man, but I am seeing the face of my own seven-year-old son. I do not think I can bear it.

What are Christmas candies and frosted cookies to a world with so much pain?

 

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“Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! ”

Some of the old maple trees that gave this home its name are waving pink, plastic ribbons. They are marked for removal. This week the tree man will come with heavy machinery and sharp blades, and we will say goodbye.

I will find it easy to say goodbye to the headless trunk covered in poison ivy vines. I will not find it so easy to witness the fall of the other tree. This tree is crowned with green leaves in summer, yellow leaves in fall, but it is hollow. Standing in front of it, I can see blue sky through a hole that is shaped just like a child’s drawing of a heart.

I feel a kinship with this tree. I know this is what love does. It rips you right open.

We are discussing Christmas gift ideas when my friend suddenly confesses that she can’t stop imagining the loss of her two-year-old daughter, her much-loved only daughter. I tell her I understand. This pain is love’s shadow.

It sends us to our knees.

I am blessed with four children. Which means I have been on my knees for a very long time. It isn’t such a bad place. There are angel voices here.

 

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“Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!”

The shrieking radio, that bearer of bad news, is on again, and my daughter says, “More war? Why is there always more war?”

She places her frosted angel back on the table. I lay my own sugared bell beside it.

I think about that interview. How the little boy grew up. How he visited a Holocaust museum in Israel. There, on the wall, he found a photograph of prisoners in a concentration camp. Among those gaunt, wounded faces he discovered the face of his own father. A man he had not seen since that day when promises were made.

It occurs to me only now that my Father is also among the wounded. I can’t seem to articulate to my daughter why it matters. Why it makes such a difference.

I only know that it does.

Ours is a world of violence and loss. It is also a world of small hairbrushes packed with love. A world of Christmas cookies baked with love.

A world being healed by the wounds of a king.

 

“And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

 

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