I can no longer remember how I first found Tresta Payne’s blog, but I know I have appreciated her quiet, wise stories for a long time. We’ve never met, and our homes are separated by too many miles, but what I glimpse in her stories is a vision of a life well lived. I don’t mean that her life seems perfect or even that she seems perfect. Only that the thoughtfulness and attentiveness with which she lives her daily life inspires me. And this Advent reflection? It’s a song of hope calling each of us out into the wild world beyond even our imaginations. To the place where God, in all his fullness, dwells.
At the dawn of first light, the Very First Light, there was a song about a savior coming. At Joseph’s court, on Moses’ long trek, at Nehemiah’s return – all through there was a hint of coming, of reigning, of redeeming forever.
I imagine God, like Aslan, singing the world into being and singing the first sunrise up with hope.
You will mess up.
You will fall short.
You will despise Me and think you’ve gone as far away as you can, but I’m making a way back.
Because you will want to return.
I need to imagine it like this, like Lewis did in The Magician’s Nephew. I need to imagine more about God than I think is possible, because my finite brain is tied to my eternal soul and both need more of who God is, less of who I keep being.
I am hopeful against the odds.
There was a message at church a month ago about hope. Our pastor was reminding us of personal revival in a time when the whole world seems a wreck and we so easily lose hope for it. He was encouraging us to think more about God, to remember that He does and is beyond all that we could ask or imagine.
I was challenged to think more of God. Not just to think of God more often – definitely that. But mostly, to think MORE of Him than my logic can fathom, and so to stretch beyond my mind’s small and logical borders.
I want to think the grandest thoughts I can about God, about His plans for good, and about His kingdom in me and you and the one to come. And then, when I’ve thought the best thoughts I can muster, I am challenged to believe that it’s even better than that.
The imagination doesn’t stretch beyond the natural order of things very well, especially if it’s been stifled by years of common sense and religion. But yet, what is natural if not God?
Bring back the imagination, I say. Bring back the awe of God and the understanding that we simply cannot grasp Him, but He wants us to try and keep trying, seek and keep seeking, believe and keep believing.
Before that Baby broke the thin skin between heaven and earth, landing in the rough hands of a carpenter, the world logically understood how babies were born. Mom + Dad = Baby. Of course. So logically, Mary was lying.
I wonder if she spent any time at all defending the truth she knew in her heart, but no one could fathom in their minds? How frustrating, to know the truth about God in a way no one else would believe.
She tucked things away in her heart, like moms do, and I suppose she also learned to think more about God, even more than a virgin birth and God-made-man.
The song was carried by angels that first night of Christ’s incarnation and they sang what they didn’t fully understand. God is too much for even the heavenly hosts to grasp.
Novatian says that if God were to be understood fully, He couldn’t be God. If our human understanding could box Him up all tidy (like we try to) then God would be a god of our making, a god of small minds and little imagination, bound by human experience.
But God is before, and God is behind, and He has to be more than our language can express. He has to be outside of every means we have to fully describe Him or know Him or experience Him.
Yet He placed Himself in us, bound up in the same minerals He spoke into existence.
Voices from the past keep reminding us and I know I don’t quite get it yet. Do you ever feel like you are on the edge of something, about to take a huge leap in understanding or faith or imagination towards God? It’s a good place to be, but it’s not the finale.
There’s always, endlessly, forever and ever, more.
The hope of revival and the revival of hope in me, and the strain to hear that song – it’s Christmas’ reminder. It’s the only fitting thing for a weary world to rejoice in.
He’s coming and we hear the music and we imagine so much more than is possible, so much more than what the pull of this earth allows us.
He’s coming, and that’s enough and altogether too much for us.
Tresta lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and 4 kids, surrounded by mountains and rivers and the best little community one could ask for. Her days are filled with homeschooling, laundry, and trying to find truth, goodness, and beauty in the middle of chaos. Any remaining brain cells are used to put words together at sharppaynes.com.
I thought there was only one way to tell the story. I was sure there was only one way to begin.
The beginning was the black page in my own little copy of the wordless book. The beginning was the black bead on the bracelet I made in Vacation Bible School. The beginning was the first bullet point in every gospel tract I’d ever seen. The beginning was that first brick on the Romans Road to Salvation: we all have sinned.
Sin, separation, estrangement: this is how the story always began.
I thought I knew the story. I thought I had it right.
It began with a great debt. I owed this Christ everything. This is the story I was taught, and this is the story I believed.
This is the story that has shaped my whole life. And this is the story I still believe.
But I spent years crawling my way back to the beginning of the story. And ten years ago, I arrived. Desperate with pain and unmet desire, I let go of that black page. I let go of the blood-red, and I let go of the white.
I’d spent my whole life clinging to my own cleanness, my own goodness, trying to pay back the debt I owed, but it no longer mattered. The only things that mattered were these: was I known? Was I loved?
When belief unraveled, when it no longer seemed to matter if I was good, I heard this: I see you.
God didn’t care if I was good. And he didn’t care if I believed. But he cared that I was hurting.
Because he loved me like I love my babies. And he held me like I hold my babies.
He held me until I could say, like Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”
It is Lent, and I am thinking about sin. I am thinking about the Love I encountered ten years ago.
My prayer these weeks has been the same every day. It is brief and simple: search me, O God, and know my heart. The result has been surprisingly straightforward. It has felt like God placing a mirror right in front of my face.
I can’t help but see what the mirror reflects, and I cringe. I see something ugly, something so buried I would never have discovered it on my own, and I feel the expected shame. I’d like, just for a moment, to forget what I’ve seen. But then another thought occurs to me: it takes such love to hold up that mirror. Thank you, God, I whisper. Thank you for loving me enough to show me this.
It’s as if God is the friend who won’t let me leave the house with spinach stuck between my teeth or toilet paper clinging to my shoe. What a relief it is to have a friend like that.
And so, I have finally arrived at the black page. The black bead. The first brick. But I am not afraid. I am not ashamed. At least, not for long. Because I know what comes next. I know about the blood-red, and I know about the white.
And this story?
It is a love story.
In late December, the seed and nursery catalogs began arriving. I dove in. When I came up for air, I tried to remind myself I was planning a vegetable plot, not an eight-hundred square foot formal rose garden.
It is easy to get a little lost in a pile of seed catalogs.
These are the days for rest, both for you and your garden. Unless you live in Florida.
I’ve heard it said that southern gardeners should take their winter break in late summer. Which is sort-of true. No one can grow tomatoes in Florida in August. But, it is also not true at all. You may give your vegetable beds a break, but the grass, the weeds, and those horrible invasive vines covered in thorns do not take a break. Unless you want your house to disappear back into the primeval jungle, you had better not neglect the August garden entirely.
I only gardened in Florida for two years, but I am still recovering. As it turns out, I need a good long break from working my bit of ground.
I need a season for rest. I need a season for dreams.
Rest can be painful. A persistant ache. Dreaming hurts.
I love winter in the north, but I don’t find it easy. I long for sunshine. For warm air on the skin of my arms. For flowers and green grass and those little breezes that feel like a caress. It is a season for rest, but this means it is also a season for waiting, for desiring, for pressing hard against the blunt edges of everything you dream about but do not yet hold in your arms.
It is a season of emptiness.
True rest means returning to God. But this is not as easy nor as pretty as it sounds. It is often anguish that sends us back.
Back to the source of dreams, back to the source of every good and new thing.
Back to the only One who can renew our hope.
Before I began writing these Advent reflections, I had a very general structure in mind. The whole series would move, I thought, from dark to light, from ordinary to extraordinary, from dust and dirt to starlight.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Instead, I have consulted this writing plan each morning and discovered my own emptiness. No words. No stories. No ideas. Which is a desperate place and a very good place to find oneself. It has led me to frantic prayer and constant listening. Finding no stories in the plan, I have listened hard for any hint of story in my day.
Often, I have found my stories in my daughter’s difficult observations.
Yesterday, she said, “I think it must be the worst thing in the world to have a child who dies.”
I am a writer, and I abhor a platitude. An easy answer. The cliché we use to bypass actual thought. Even so, it can be tempting to fall back on those things when we are faced with the unanswerable and the terrible. But I have learned a few things from writing and from reading, and I have learned a few things mothering this daughter.
I fight the pull of the pretty, easy answer and say nothing but “Yes, yes, I know.”
She is only ten, but she already understands love’s terrible shadow. She knows intuitively, without ever being taught, that great love rips us open. Leaves us wounded and bleeding.
I have no good answers for these kinds of questions. I have no band-aid for this degree of pain. Today, I do not even have much of a story. And the writing plan? Well, that has been entirely abandoned. Sometimes, the world looks darker and more ordinary the closer we get to Christmas. Sometimes, there is no perfect, timely trajectory from Advent waiting to Christmas fulfillment.
But if I have no story, I do have this one thing to share with you. A vision of sorts.
After our conversation, I kept seeing a picture in my mind. It was my daughter, so full of difficult questions and a grief too old for her years, and she was wearing her angel costume. It is white and shimmery, and the padded, embroidered wings are gold.
I kept seeing her sad eyes against the white glow of the angel’s dress, and I realized, I think for the first time, how much our Christmas gift was heaven’s loss.
I realized how vast an emptiness the Prince of Heaven left behind him when he poured himself into Mary’s womb.
I looked into angel eyes, and they seemed to say, “We have lost him. We have said goodbye. How long till he returns to us?”
I can’t erase love’s dark shadow, and I’m not sure I would if I could. But I know that the parent heart of God has known it all already. I know he has passed by a heavenly chamber and found it empty. Heart-breakingly empty. And I know he suffered that pain for love.
And yet, the emptiness of heaven at the moment of incarnation is as much good news as the emptiness of the tomb.
This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the good news of our restoration.
This is the comfort of believing God sees our emptiness, our pain and says, “Yes, yes, I know.”
A hymn for this, the first Thursday.
“See the Lord of earth and skies; / Humbled to the dust … .”
GLORY be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend!
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears!
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King.
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man;
Dwelling in an earthly clod,
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.
We, the sons of men, rejoice,
The Prince of peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.
– by Charles Wesley